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ASU professor awarded $2 million to recast concrete construction

Examples of 3D concrete printing shown with Sooraj Nair, an ASU doctoral student in Narayanan Neithalath's lab group

ASU Professor Narayanan Neithalath and four colleagues have been granted $2 million from the National Science Foundation to foster collaboration around 3D concrete printing research across more than a dozen countries. 3D concrete printing generated these examples shown with Sooraj Nair, a doctoral student in Neithalath's lab group. The technique offers the potential to change the nature of construction. Photo courtesy of Narayanan Neithalath

October 26, 2020

Construction is a traditional industry. Fundamental work is performed in much the same way it has been for generations.

Consider the creation of concrete. Crews build a formwork or frame on-site. Cement and other materials are measured and mixed. Then the concrete is poured, compacted and cured or hardened over several weeks.

This reliable process has been enacted around the world for decades, but the methods of concrete construction may be changing. Recent advances in materials science, robotics and other fields are permitting concrete to be 3D printed at building sites. Projects in Europe and Asia have already printed entire houses.

“3D printing has several advantages over conventional concrete construction,” said Narayanan Neithalath, a professor of civil engineering in the Ira A.  Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. “For example, the method is much more efficient. We can reduce material wastage by half, and we also can create unconventional structures. But realizing the advantages requires a community to research and develop the tools, techniques and standards to make this innovation into a more broad-based reality.”

With a vision to establish that community, Neithalath and four colleagues at other universities have been awarded a $2 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation’s AccelNet program supporting the establishment of collaborative links to address challenges in science and engineering.

Neithalath and his co-principal investigators on the grant are creating a “network of networks” called 3DConcrete to share knowledge and opportunities across 13 countries.

“Every country or region has its own professional network related to concrete,” Neithalath said. “But we’re trying to establish broader collaboration for the research and development of 3D printed concrete and allied topics to help advance the capabilities of industry.”

Shiho Kawashima, an associate professor of civil engineering at Columbia University and a member of the 3DConcrete grant project team, says more direct interaction is crucial to this effort. Many academics in this field are familiar with the work of their peers, but they are not necessarily collaborating.

“Consequently, we plan to host workshops and other events among our partner institutions to better connect people,” Kawashima said. “We also hope to engage with organizations such as the American Concrete Institute to conduct meetings alongside their conventions and involve much larger groups.”

In addition to faculty peer relations, 3DConcete will support student exchanges among member institutions. Participants may spend eight weeks at another university domestically or abroad to see what and how others are working in the field, including engaging with companies that are affiliated with those universities.

“This effort extends across disciplines, too,” Kawashima said. “We are cement and concrete materials people, but we need to extend outreach to those in architecture, robotics and structural engineering. Through these exchanges, we hope to connect all of the means that are important in terms of bringing research advances into practice.”

Raissa Ferron, an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin and another member of the grant project team, says the cross-disciplinary nature of 3D concrete printing demands not only professional collaboration but also a review of educational models.

“Civil engineers typically understand the materials science and engineering of concrete and steel. We are not immersed in programming and robotics,” she said. “But innovation of this order requires that we evaluate how we train our students. What information and skills will they need as technical advances change the nature of our field? This is a question we should consider in conversation with everyone.”

Ferron also says broader changes represented by 3D concrete printing offer a means to bring more women and minorities into construction.

“Construction is one of the largest sectors in the economy, but certain groups of people have been barred from full participation,” Ferron said. “3D concrete printing presents an opportunity to reinvent the field. For example, if this innovation means workers will not necessarily need to pick up heavy equipment, we can disassociate construction from being a masculine arena.”

Gaurav Sant, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles and another member of the grant project team, says there is a lot of excitement about the potential for concrete printing to catalyze change in construction. But he also says their new network of networks has a great deal of work to do regarding fundamental advances in science.

“For example, the 3D concrete printing solutions we are developing now are based on the cement we currently use to make concrete,” Sant said. “But this implicitly assumes that cement is the best material we have for the purpose. Why is that? The cement used to produce concrete is responsible for up to 10% of global CO2 emissions. So, maybe we can be more expansive in our thinking and in the questions we ask. These are the kinds of tasks that this new network of networks will be able to consider.”

Neithalath concurs that fundamental change to the science and practice of construction is long overdue, and that this requires new thinking on fundamental levels.

“We’re not saying that every construction project needs to be 3D-printed concrete. But real innovation requires consideration of alternate mechanisms and processes. Not all conventional methods are the best of what is possible,” he said. “So, this project is intended to create a shared platform that can germinate new ideas to take us toward what is possible.”

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