When Beijing’s National Aquatic Centre was being built for the 2008 Olympics, there were thousands of construction workers employed to realise its striking and unusual design.
Inspired by soap bubbles, it was made out of asymmetrical pieces of a material called ethyl tetro-fluoroethylene, or ETFE, which is 1 per cent the weight of glass. Uniquely-shaped joining nodes were needed to put together 3065 bubble-like pneumatic cushions of all sizes. And the thousands of connection nodes were welded onsite with machinery in a costly and cumbersome operation.
But imagine if those nodes could have been created on a 3D printer and run off at the push of a button?
That is the aim of a project run by RMIT’s Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory (SIAL), working with construction industry partner Arup.
The team has been working on a project called SmartNodes, which has created a model of a pavilion structure that incorporates a series of connection nodes, each with their own customised geometry. The nodes were created on a 3D printer, using stainless steel. The network of 180 nodes was used to join 207 standard construction beams and fixings to create a complex pavilion.
Associate Professor Jane Burry, an architect, described the project as “future gazing” into a world where more adventurous designs and construction projects could become reality. “It means we can look at advanced architectural geometry and ‘crazy forms’. The goal would be that you would have more geometric freedom in all sorts of buildings.”
SIAL worked with RMIT mechanical and structural engineers and collaborated with Kristof Crolla, from the Laboratory for Explorative Architecture and Design.
“We are using technology to find simple ways to build complex architecture,” Burry says. “Historically, architects and engineers worked rather differently and had different equipment and techniques, but there is a lot of technology now that is bringing us closer together.”
RMIT has been a leader in the field of advanced manufacturing technologies, creating a $25 million Advanced Manufacturing Precinct.
And the field of 3D printing is evolving rapidly. Metal printing has so far been used for small parts such as medical components and implants. “You can see the usefulness of it there in terms of bodies – everyone has a different knee. When you want to make custom implants there is a lot of opportunity there,” Burry says.
SmartNodes is about using metal 3D printing for much bigger projects such as construction.
“Every node is unique – it will have a slightly different loading requirement, different angles and different loads and types of structures. At least 15 per cent of weight of structure is usually in the node rather than the beam. It is significantly lighter with these 3D printed nodes. And if you save on weight you are also saving on other things like the foundations,” Burry says.
The team would like to expand to look at testing other types of metals and different processes. “The potential in architecture and construction is great. This technology could be used in sports stadiums, cultural buildings, big assembly spaces, outdoor music pavilions or anywhere where you are interested in using irregular non-repetitive structures,” Burry says.
Story: Rachel Kleinman
Photo: Marc Morel and Nick Williams
This story was first published in RMIT's Making Connections magazine.