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3D-Printed Moulds Open Up New Worlds for Architects


There is little doubt that 3D printing will shake up the construction sector in a variety of ways. From 3D-printed houses in China, fully-functioning office spaces in Dubai, to one-off architectural feats like the 3D-printed treehouse at this year’s Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show, it is the new kid on the block that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Last month, Jobsite spoke with Dr. James Gardiner, Lead of Construction 3D Printing and Innovation at Laing O’Rourke, about the disruptive force of 3D printing in the construction industry

We have spoken with him again, this time to take a deeper-dive into the more technical benefits of 3D-printed moulds, and the many opportunities this broaches for both architects and construction overall.

Breaking the Mould

Dr. Gardiner uses FreeFAB, a technology of his own design — 3D-printed wax moulds for concrete components. They drastically reduce the cost, fabrication time, and waste associated with the traditional methods of creating architectural moulds.

They drastically reduce the cost, fabrication time, and waste associated with the traditional methods of creating architectural moulds. 

“FreeFAB is different because it fabricates moulds instead of the object directly, and you can use any material within that mould,” Dr. Gardiner notes. “This has benefits over other construction 3D printing technology as it doesn’t have to go through re-certification processes due to the 3D printing process. 

“By fabricating the mould, you are achieving major efficiencies in how you produce the formwork and make objects.”

The reason this is so beneficial, Dr. Gardiner explains, is because the concrete industry is typically constrained by what it can make, due of the cost of the mould in relation to the object created. 

Typically, a mould must be used multiple times in order for the cost to balance out over multiple projects. This results in a lot of repetition in the building and building design industries. 

“Unless you’re a star architect, it’s unlikely you’re going to look at using bespoke moulds, meaning you generally end up with less adventurous designs,” Dr. Gardiner says. “Something that generally happens is that architects will create a design for a new building, which is beautiful and visionary, and then that building undergoes a cost reduction process or ‘value-engineering.’ 

“Most architects are acutely aware of the value-engineering process and have in their mind's eye the constraints they’re working to (repetition and simple moulds), meaning they have ‘the blinkers on’ during the design process due to the realities of construction. 

“Changes introduced by technologies such as FreeFAB Wax don’t mean every building will be done with one-off moulds, but it should mean the cost will come down for bespoke design, opening up new doors and possibilities for architects.” 

Dr. Gardiner speaks passionately about creating the most impressive buildings possible. But even beyond design and aesthetics, FreeFAB wax has many other benefits. 

But even beyond design and aesthetics, FreeFAB wax has many other benefits.  

According to Dr. Gardiner, since the wax used significantly reduces the cost of the mould, this opens up the possibility to using a mould once, recycling it, and reprinting it. Since the wax can be used hundreds of times, this significantly reduces the cost of the mould. 

“By reusing the material, you end up with an efficient process and an environmentally-friendly one, too. There’s also a longer-term value-add of a whole façade with every panel being different because you have greater capability to integrate function and responsiveness to a range of inputs such as acoustics, sun shading, structural efficiency, and thermal performance,” he notes. 

With the prefabrication and construction 3D printing sector typically laser-focusing on cost, Dr. Gardiner believes 3D printing should be instead spruiking its true benefits of value-add and quality over cost, which tends to lead to a race to the bottom. He notes that in areas such as Japan and Scandinavia, where prefabrication companies have a greater focus on achieving better outcomes of quality and time certainties, the results are generally vastly superior to countries focused on cutting costs. 

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