3D-printed structural element. Credit: David de Jong

+ Different production techniques and tools can enable you to realise a design that uses much less material or integrates multiple functionalities in one product.

Since time began, humans have been inventing new tools and production techniques. These inventions seem to come in waves: triggered by the discovery of new materials, the invention of electricity or the increasing power of computers. Right now, I believe we are at the start of a new wave of production tools that are going to help us build a better future for people and the environment. 

Traditional building techniques like stacking bricks and pouring concrete can lead to beautiful results and have served us very well for many centuries. But can these techniques deliver the beautiful, innovative designs that computerised design tools now help us create? Today building designers must adapt their ideas so the limited range of production techniques available can produce them.

This is why I think it’s important to research whether new production techniques can be applied to buildings and infrastructure to increase our design freedom. Can they increase the range of solutions we can apply in our designs? Can they allow us to create things that could not be made before? 

This isn’t just about architectural aesthetics. Design freedom can have an aesthetic aspect to it, of course. But different production techniques can enable you to realise a design that uses much less material or integrates multiple functionalities in one product.  

I’m part of an Arup team looking at the use of additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, in metal for creating structural elements. After two years of research, we’ve shown that this approach can produce far smaller, lighter elements that deliver the same function and strength as those created by traditional methods.

In the case of the particular 3D-printed piece in the image above, the height is approximately half that of one designed for traditional production methods, while the direct weight reduction per node is 75%. 

On a construction project that means we could be looking at an overall weight reduction of the total structure of more than 40%. This is due to the weight reduction of the nodes, plus the impact of this weight reduction on other elements in the system. Because the nodes become lighter, the other elements in the structure can also be lighter. 

But the really exciting part is that this technique can potentially be applied to any industry that uses complex, high-quality, metal products. Reducing their weight would reduce material use, transport costs and storage costs, amongst other benefits.

We are in the process of researching, testing and proving but I’m convinced that additive manufacturing has a real application in the building industry. The impact it will have not only depends on our work, but also on architects and designers thinking beyond traditional production techniques. 

If the industry can embrace new tools, who knows what our world will look like 20 years from now?