Advanced Computing in the Age of AI|Wednesday, July 8, 2020
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3D Printing Promises Lighter, Stronger Building Material 

New technique takes cue from nature to create lighter and stronger structures than conventional casting methods.

What can you do with 3D printing, you wonder? With advances coming at a furious pace, a better question is what can't you do with 3D printing?

Replace spare game pieces? Check. Design your own candy line? Piece of cake. Build prototype electric vehicles? No problem. Print your dream house? Why not? Making bigger, more complex structures is just the natural progression of this rapidly-evolving technology. Using concrete as the substrate material, designers are hoping to expand the 3D printing horizon to include structures like buildings. An article at MIT covers the progression of this innovative technology from its roots to current day advances and an ever widening-array of "print" materials.

MIT Media Lab, concrete sample. Photo: Steven Keating, Timothy Cooke and John FernándezOne of the first practical 3-D printers, and the first to receive that moniker, was patented in 1993 by MIT professors Michael Cima and Emanuel Sachs. What set this machine apart from earlier attempts was its ability to use print materials like plastic, ceramic and metal. These MIT-inspired 3DPs, as they're referred to in the article, are now in use "all over the world," according to Cima.

Now researchers at MIT's Media Lab are building on the growing body of 3D printing accomplishments with plans to take the technology to the next level by creating real-world complex 3D structures, like buildings.

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 are heading the project. Using a technique called variable-density printing, the scientists are attempting to create concrete structures that are lighter and stronger than conventional concrete.

Keating compares the technology to the graded materials found in nature. Bones, for example, have "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," Keating explains.

The new approach also promises the ability to create unique shapes that would be impractical with the current concrete-casting process.

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