3D printed SmartNodes improve construction efficiency

The cross-disciplinary SmartNodes project pushed the boundaries of 3D printing and resulted in designs for more than 140 structural nodes used to construct a lightweight canopy.

The research is the collaborative effort of RMIT, design firm Arup and Research Fellow Kristof Crolla of the Laboratory for Explorative Architecture and Design (LEAD).

Associate Professor Jane Burry, from the the School of Architecture and Design, said the project had explored the potential for using 3D printing to manufacture high-tech, lightweight SmartNodes that could be used with off-the-shelf, standard beams and fixings to construct a complex building.

“These SmartNodes will reduce building costs because they use less material, require less manufacturing processes and are quicker to manufacture,” she said.

“While 3D printing technologies have been around since the 1980s, it has had limited application in in the construction industry.

“People in the construction industry have used 3D printing with concrete, but not with the materials we have used.

“The light weight of the SmartNodes means builders will save a lot on foundations, as well as on materials.

“There is interest from the construction industry, as well as technology, aerospace and medical because of the different forms we can create.”

Dr Andrew Maher, Arup’s Head of Digital Innovation, said the company had been working on additive manufacturing and its impact on design and construction processes for the past few years.

“We see these types of technologies emerging from research laboratories to industry in the very near future – it’s extremely exciting,” he said.

Research fellow Nicholas Williams and Arup staff from Australia and the US – who together spent 12 months working on the project – recently presented their findings to the REAL2015 conference in San Francisco.

Mr Williams said the application of the SmartNodes system to architecture and engineering meant there was more flexibility in the building design without the extra cost.

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A SmartNode created using a 3D printer.

“As a prototype, the team have designed a simple shell shape, which uses 144 different shaped nodes,” he said.

“They are light-weight and can contribute up to 15 per cent of the structure’s mass, but by making them in these different shapes you can save weight and money, because you are using less material.

“There are a number of reasons this technology has not been used before, primarily the cost of production at the scale of buildings, combined with the uncertainty of material and process.

“SmartNodes tackles relatively small components, which are prototypes for larger scales of building form and structural stability.”

As an exemplar of cross-disciplinary research, the project drew together a team of experts from across RMIT.

Led by researchers from RMIT’s Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory, the team included Professor Mike Xie in the Centre for Innovative Structures and Materials, and the Centre for Additive Manufacturing’s Professor Milan Brandt and Associate Professor Martin Leary.

The designs and components were tested by RMIT’s School of Engineering, Design Research Institute and Arup. 

The pieces were used to build and exhibit the pavilion at the 2014 Engineers Australia convention. 

Testing took take place at RMIT’s Advanced Manufacturing Precinct.

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