MIT research on "printing" buildings

MIT News Office posted a survey of the fascinating research at the university, and by alum, on an array of 3D printing technologies and applications.
Another variant underway now is a system being developed by Neri Oxman PhD ’10, the Media Lab’s Sony Corporation Career Development Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, and her graduate student Steven Keating for “printing” concrete. Their ultimate aim: printing a complete structure, even a whole building.

Why do that, instead of the tried-and-true method of casting concrete in wooden forms that dates from the heyday of the Roman Empire? In part, Oxman explains, because it opens up new possibilities in both form and function. Not only would it be possible to create fanciful, organic-looking shapes that would be difficult or impossible using molds, but the technique could also allow the properties of the concrete itself to vary continuously, producing structures that are both lighter and stronger than conventional concrete.

To illustrate this, Keating uses the example of a palm tree compared to a typical structural column. In a concrete column, the properties of the material are constant, resulting in a very heavy structure. But a palm tree’s trunk varies: denser at the outside and lighter toward the center. As part of his thesis research, he has already made sections of concrete with the same kind of variations of density.

“Nature always uses graded materials,” Keating says. Bone, for example, consists of “a hard, dense outer shell, and an interior of spongy material. It gives you a high strength-to-weight ratio. You don’t see that in man-made materials.” Not yet, at least.

"Printing off the paper"


  1. I watched this the first time to learn more about the amazing possibilities of 3-D printing technology. But, I watched it the second and third time just to stare at Neri Oxman.

  2. I know a fellow who’s working on this at the U of Arizona. I hear that one of his special ingredients is playa dust.

    1. Yikes! Rude much? It’s also in the Pantheon (which I believe predates 1988)–heavy, strong rings near the bottom and lighter rings on top incorporating pumice–but that doesn’t make it less interesting.

    2. Isn’t variable density concrete (VDA) a uniform less dense product in its internal structure whereas this technique allows for varying the density as needed?  In bone structure you do not have a solid outer shell with uniform less dense interior.  There are gradations from the outside shell to the inside center.

  3. cool.
    and fun.
    but as an actual tool, seems to be solving a problem that doesn’t exist.  even standard building materials today are VERY efficient with their strength-to-weight ratios.  W-shapes (i-beams) have been designed specifically to get the steel to the top and bottom while leaving the middle relatively lightweight.  more efficient than a tube shape.
    but, as with everything, i hope they surprise and delight me.

    1. Checkout the link from musiccountry24 above.  Concrete is cheap and available almost everywhere.  Steel is much more expensive and more resources are needed to construct with it.  

  4. Pipe and tubing has a hard, dense, outer shell and an interior of air. Fill it with foam if you want a spongy center. Not to say this person’s approach to materials doesn’t have promise, but sheesh.

  5. This will be useful for a bunch of applications.  Conduits can be built into structures, rather than retro-fitting them to the frame.  Also, buildings can be built where humans cannot go, such as in space, deep underwater and where there is high radioactivity or temperature.

    Buildings can be completely pre-specified with all their parts fitted together, in a CAD drawing, to minimize the number of bolts, fasteners, clips, contact surfaces, etc.  A complete structure could be made without ANY nails, screws, adhesives, etc.  It all slides together.

    In areas where certain materials are scarce, existing designs could be modified to minimize certain types of materials and maximize others and then printed just the same.

    I could go on…

  6. As a guy who has spent a lot of time repointing brick in his basement, bricks are such creatures.  The inside is very soft compared to the hard face.  If you score the face, say by unskilled wielding of an angle grinder, you get something called “spalling” – where the face of the brick shatters under load.

    Also, the mortar itself isn’t really a glue like you think it is, but a buffer to absorb shock and relieve moisture in the wall. 

    So, new idea – sorta…  I guess the real test is whether it holds together once it is partially damaged.

  7. …“a hard, dense outer shell, and an interior of spongy material. It gives you a high strength-to-weight ratio. You don’t see that in man-made materials.” 

    MIT Media Lab apparently doesn’t do field trips out to actual houses being built…

    1. I think the point being made is that the materials themselves are not manufactured with variable density.  Structural Insulated Panel design for homes and small buildings on a small scale and tubular design of modern skyscrapers on a large scale operate on the same principal, sure, but they are still using consistent-density wood, foam, steel, or concrete.

  8. A squid beak is a great example of this. Ultra hard point, but it’s anchored in soft tissue. There’s a really neat progression from hard to soft, and the whole structure is ultimately very strong and resilient.

    I think that also contrasts with the suggestions from musiccountry24 and Nagurski – there is a difference between simply joining distinct materials or compositions up, and varying the composition of a material in a truly continuous and flexible way. 

    The patents cited are certainly chasing the same idea, which is by no means new, but (at least the one with the link) still seem to amount to just mixing different batches of concrete and pouring them all into a very complex form one on top of the other. Getting it to work on a large scale using a 3d printing head — esp. one that can instantly vary the composition right at the nozzle — is (or would be) definitely an exciting development.

  9. Too bad it takes years of study to even get a chance to work at such a place, as i would love to brainstorm with these kind of people.

  10. If you’re ever near Bucks County Pennsylvania, check out Fonthill and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works.

    “Fonthill, built between 1908 and 1910, is a testament to Henry Mercer’s
    vivid imagination. He designed it, “room by room, from
    the interior, the exterior not being considered until all the rooms had
    been imagined and sketched,” Mercer wrote. The result was
    spectacular. The structure is distinctly etched in the historically
    significant architecture of Doylestown, Pennsylvania and
    the collective memory of generations of visitors.

    Built entirely of hand mixed concrete, Fonthill has 44 rooms, 18
    fireplaces, 32 stairwells and more than 200 windows of
    varying size and shape. The National Historic Landmark contains more
    than 900 prints and other objects that Mercer
    gathered throughout the world, creating an intensely personal statement
    of his genius. The lavishly embellished interior surfaces
    show an incredible array of Mercer’s original decorative tiles.

    Mercer dubbed Fonthill a “concrete castle for the New World,” which he
    left as “a museum of decorative tiles and
    prints.” Guided tours provide educational opportunities for visitors of
    all ages and add insight to the world class collection that
    surrounded Mercer during his life.”

  11. This is an idea that can hopefully begin to change the archaic and wasteful construction methods that we use. There is a guy in Los Angeles that has been working on a similar concept for years, specifically developing the nozzle and applications beyond basic concrete.
    He has actually been printing buildings and walls for a while now
    Just have to look past the graphics

    1. The archaic and wasteful construction methods have been developed over a long time and their cost and speed and simple technology (read cheap) is a boon for repairs and additions.  The show of prefabs at the MOMA some years ago mostly demonstrated that while space could be enclosed simply and cheaply by standard wood framing, it could be enclosed expensively with cad equipment cutting structure and skin from plywood.
      It is appealing to think material savings would be pivotal but the complexity and cost of this technology makes that untrue and it seems unlikely that this would be adopted broadly enough to make it work.

  12. but concrete fresh off the truck has a certain slump to it… how would that even work without forms?

  13. Definitely agree that it is expensive and complex, and yeah building structures from plywood sheets might take longer than wood frame construction. But every new process and technological development is time consuming and expensive in the beginning. Think about when telephone lines were proposed across the US. Everyone said it was too expensive and pointless of an endeavor because the telegraph worked just fine and was cheaper.
    The design of a building in CAD happens regardless of the construction methods so if you can build it in two days with a machine and a couple technicians as opposed to weeks or months with an entire crew of people its incomparable.
    It’s just going to take time to get to that point.

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