Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, shows growing potential as a technique for fabricating parts out of plastic or metal. But what about building structures out of concrete? 

AEM member Oshkosh Corp. and Oak Ridge National Laboratory have teamed up to develop new 3D printed concrete technology, and the early results show the potential to reshape segments of the construction industry. 

In this episode, Oak Ridge's Dr. Brian Post provides an update on the project's status and explores the possibilities that 3D printed concrete could unlock, while AEM members speculate on what it means to them. 

Learn more about AEM's previous partnership with ORNL to build the world's first 3D printed excavator, or subscribe to the AEM Industry Advisor for regular updates in your email about industry news and insights. 

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SHOW TRANSCRIPT

Dr. Brian Post:

Starting to look at 3D printing concrete, the nice thing is that you can do onsite manufacturing in environments where it would be hard to get skilled and qualified labor out to the site. And it can work all night.

Dusty Weis:

Hello and welcome to another edition of the AEM Thinking Forward podcast. Advancing the equipment manufacturing industry. I'm Dusty Weis, AEM's professional nerd, window seat denizen and podcast host. And additive manufacturing has been used to shape pieces from plastic, metal, and now concrete. But what's impressive about this new 3D printed concrete technology isn't just the medium, it's the scale. It's envisioned as a new way to print entire buildings in the future. And in this episode, we talk with Dr. Brian Post from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where they're developing these techniques with AEM Member company Oshkosh Corporation.

We also explore with a couple other AEM members what 3D printed concrete might mean for the future of the industry. It's these sorts of cutting edge insights that we work to bring you on the AEM Thinking Forward podcast. Each month we explore a new subject area to help keep your business on the vanguard of the industry. So if you haven't yet, make sure you subscribe to our podcast feed so that you get an update every time we put out a new edition. Just find us in your favorite podcast app, and hit that subscribe button.

In that vein, I'd also be hugely appreciative if you told me what you think of our show. Rate or review us in iTunes, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Your comments help other industry pros find our podcast and help me keep it relevant to what you do. So up until recently additive manufacturing has played a pretty limited role in the construction and agriculture industry. Mostly it's a means of prototyping or tooling among equipment manufacturers. But that could be on the verge of changing as a result of a new partnership between AEM Member Oshkosh Corp. and the federal government's Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Oak Ridge helps US companies develop new materials and technologies to compete on a global scale. And you may remember they partnered with AEM to debut the world's first 3D printed excavator at CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2017. We discussed it actually in episode one of this podcast. Now what they're working on with Oshkosh could be another game changer in construction. An apparatus and technique for 3D printing structures out of concrete. I caught up with Dr. Brian Post from Oak Ridge at a recent Thinking Forward event in DC, and he filled me in on the details.

Dr. Brian Post:

About 1993 we had a researcher named Randy Lind, he wrote in his lab notebook that I think given the state of current robotics technologies, this is very early stages of digital computing and technology with robotics and gantry systems. He said, I think we could probably use robotics to put materials in places and automate construction. Right? And so he wrote this down, nobody was interested. It was such a far out idea that it just never occurred to people that there are markets like labor and energy and this doesn't make sense at this time. So that got tabled.

And in about 2009/2010 timeframe, we were starting to look at ... We brought it back up again, our research group. And DOE was like okay well we'll give you some money to start playing around with it. And so we built this system, that system we've demonstrated it, printed some concrete objects and then it too fell out. Right? But at the same time Lockheed Martin approached us about can we do large scale polymer manufacturing? For tooling applications. So I wanna build a prototype aircraft, could I make the forms that I'd use to make sheet metal parts, or composite parts off of.

And so we started doing that. That led into this area of big area or additive manufacturing, 3D printing objects on scales with you can only do through conventional manufacturing. And then that led into the large scale metal that we use for the excavator. And I feel like my research goal as a researcher at Oak Ridge is to make everything that Randy came up with a long time ago into a reality. And so we're coming full circle back to concrete printing. Then we're trying to look at onsite fieldable deposition systems. So can we take existing robotics technology, cable driven robots, and deploy them to a construction site so you can put a couple bay stations out, get an overhead crane and then with a quick calibration be able to figure out where you are in space. And work with the lay of the land and actually print concrete structures in situ.

And so that's what we're really starting to do, and I'm really excited about it.

Dusty Weis:

So paint a picture for me, what does this thing look like in operation? You mentioned that it's cable driven. I picture your four bays, one on each corner and that defines sort of the bounds of the project. And then you've got a crane overhead, and then this thing that dangles in the middle and does what?

Dr. Brian Post:

That's great, that's a great picture of it. Essentially imagine you have four mobile vehicles, right? Or trailer that you could deploy to the drop site. They deploy outriggers, they become stationary pieces of equipment. And then there's cables, there's three cables coming from one direction, two cables from another direction. One that comes up over the top. And then there are stay cables up to a single point where you can attack a crane, right?

And so I go and I deploy these mobile vehicles, they become stationary objects. I measure their locations and then I can work out through the geometry what the inverse kinematics are. What cable lengths I need in order to move this head around in space. This head has a concrete extruder on it and a hopper so you can keep loading concrete into it. And then it extrudes it out as kind of a paste. Much like a hot glue gun, you're squeezing it out of a nozzle forming a bead of material and then laying that down layer by layer to create three dimensional objects.

Dusty Weis:

And doing that layer by layer process with this concrete extruder, how big an object can you create at this point?

Dr. Brian Post:

At this point we're working in kind of a mid-scale demonstrator system. That's got about a 20 foot diameter by about 10 feet tall. But we're working with our industrial part Oshkosh, which makes McNeilus trucks and [Coniko 00:06:15] batch production plants, to go much larger to something than the order that can build something the size of a building.

Dusty Weis:

So we're talking about hundreds of feet by hundreds of feet potentially?

Dr. Brian Post:

That's the target.

Dusty Weis:

That's incredible.

Dr. Brian Post:

Oh, it's gonna be fun. There's a lot of work to get there, but it's something that we've started a partnership with an industrial supplier, and we're trying to make that a realistic goal.

Dusty Weis:

Now, I wanna get back to that in a second, but watching the development of additive manufacturing and 3D printing technology over the last 5-10 years one of my favorite things has always been watching these timelapse videos where they show in fast motion this head moving around, laying down layer upon layer. And eventually you watch this thing grow out of nothing. That's how this is gonna work with concrete too, but with a project that big how long does this process take right now?

Dr. Brian Post:

So we're targeting somewhere around a couple cubic yards of material an hour. Imagine like you're printing the formwork on a site. So traditionally the way I would do concrete is I would create all of these forms, if I'm doing anything complex that formwork is expensive and time consuming. And then I'll go back in, pour material in, strip the forms. There's a lot of labor and a lot of time associated with it. What we wanna be able to do is quickly get onsite, deploy this thing, print all that formwork, right? And then we can go back in and do the bulk concrete deposition afterwards in areas that we weren't able to print.

So the idea is that you can go relatively quickly, and the nice thing is it doesn't really care about what time of day it is. If you can make it invariant to the weather conditions, what the environment is. So you can do onsite manufacturing in environments where it'd be hard to get skilled and qualified labor out to the sites and things of that nature.

Dusty Weis:

And it can work all night.

Dr. Brian Post:

And it can work all night, right? So if you look at a like I know when I built my house it took about two weeks for them to frame it all up and start putting walls up, and that kind of thing. Right? But they were working from 9-5 every day. Imagine it's a little bit slower to do it through additive manufacturing, but if you're working 24 hours a day for four or five days you could probably do the same thing.

Dusty Weis:

When you're working with it in the lab right now and building these structures that are 20 by 20 by 10, how long does it run then to build a typical structure?

Dr. Brian Post:

So we're in the very early stages here at developing new materials that can have the right kind of performance for these kind of applications. And developing the robotic process and controls that we need in order to do this, but we're getting close. But we've been able to demonstrate printing 40 pounds of material a minute, so we can lay down concrete pretty quickly. And we think we can do even faster than that, hopefully we'll get up to the four or five cubic yards an hour type scenario where we can build structures in a reasonable timeframe.

Dusty Weis:

Now another advantage as we look at deploying additive manufacturing on an industrial scale, very often is that through generative design and other engineering processes you're able to build these almost honeycomb designs that are much stronger, but also use much less material than your more traditional designs. Is that an advantage that you envision for this concrete 3D printing as well?

Dr. Brian Post:

We say one of the strengths of additive manufacturing is the ability to put the material you want, exactly where you want it, when you want it. Right? And so what you're talking about is kind of this topological optimization that can happen, right? So I take a look at my structure, I say, most of this material is probably not that useful. I wanna take a look at where the structure actually needs this material. And that's the only place I wanna put it. Right?

And so I wanna start to optimized my structures for their performance and not necessarily the way in which I would build the forms. And so when we're pouring concrete today we make the formwork, we pour that, and it's completely filled with concrete, there's no necessary need for that, right? We can look at the structure, figure out what the loads are and then say, I don't really need as much material here. I don't need as much material there. I could replace this monolithic structure with a honeycomb, or a lightweight structure. Reduce the amount of [inaudible 00:10:25] materials we use, reduce the amount of building waste that we have.

It's a really interesting opportunity that we have in construction. If you look at traditional construction, I think about I was reading a statistic one time and it was about 54%, I believe, of the municipal waste that's generated in the US is construction waste. Right? And you think that that's because when we buy building materials they come in certain lengths, right? And if I'm gonna buy a 2x4 it's six feet, eight feet, ten feet, twelve feet. When I go to make my structure I have to cut those to length and then that-

Dusty Weis:

Some of that's not gonna get used, it's going in the dumpster.

Dr. Brian Post:

Exactly. Right? And so through additive manufacturing right, I'm using material, putting it exactly where I need to put it. And I have relatively low waste.

Dusty Weis:

How did this partnership come about with Oshkosh Corporation? Which is a very large and prominent AEM member. They've got holdings in all sorts of different industries here. But did they approach you? And what were they hoping to gain by this?

Dr. Brian Post:

So we have what we call cooperative research and development agreements. And that's a program ideally gives us funds in order to help industry.

Dusty Weis:

Department of Energy.

Dr. Brian Post:

Department of Energy. And so the advance manufacturing office of DOE is funding us to look at basic research in these different types of manufacturing technologies. But there's also a pot of money where we can look at, okay an industrial company will approach us with a problem. If we can solve this problem we can make a real impact on lifecycle energy it takes to manufacturing things. DOE will you support us to help this company push this forward?

And so Oshkosh is one of those companies that came to us, we were starting to look back at 3D printing concrete. They make Coniko, the batch production plants. They make the McNeilus truck family, so getting concrete from the batch production plant to the site. They make JLG, which his the work handling platforms that you have onsite. So the question was, once they get concrete to the site, what do they do with it? Right? And so what we wanna try to do is say, well okay imagine you get concrete to the site, the right kind of concrete. Can we take that extra step to build the structure that you really want?

And so that's why the partnership with Oshkosh is really important and exciting for us.

Dusty Weis:

And I think what's exciting about it for them is that you're taking the industry of building structures. Something that there have been advances in design over the years, but basically it's been the same process for thousands of years. You put one brick on top of the other, and you hope it doesn't fall down. And you're potentially redefining that entire paradigm there. How could this really be a game changer for the construction industry?

Dr. Brian Post:

So I think you're exactly right. Compared to the other types of industries that were really rapidly impacted by the industrial revolution and automation and computing, right, construction has lagged behind those. But we're always careful to think of additive manufacturing as a tool in a tool box, right? It's not a replacement for any current technique or technology. It's an addition to, it's a plus. You know I think about it like surgical robots, right? So you're doing a surgery, you get to a point, I could do this a lot better if I brought in this robot. Right?

Same thing with building stuff. I get to some point I go, it would be a lot easier or a lot better, or a lot more cost effective if I could bring in a robot for this particular operation. Right? So that's what I want additive to be, I want it to be this tool that you can bring in that exists within the construction landscape. I don't think it's gonna be a replacement for any specific technology. I think it's gonna be an additional value that you could bring to the industry.

Dusty Weis:

We started to discuss this a few moments ago, but I wanted to go deeper into it. That of, which applications do you think are custom geared for an additive manufacturing concrete process? What sorts of scenarios do you think this could be a real game changer in?

Dr. Brian Post:

I can give you ideas of low-cost disaster relief housing, that kind of thing. Where their labor pool has moved out of the location where you need to build structures. Right? To get people back to living in those kind of environments. I think it was 60 or 70% of the world lives in sub-standard housing that wouldn't meet codes for the environments that these structures are being built in. So those are automatic targets that we can start to look at.

Other ones are, I know the Army Corp of Engineers who have been our partners on some printing projects, they're looking at forward operating bases and how do you build structures for barracks and things of that nature without having to engage the entire supply chain to bring materials directly from the US out to these locations? Can you source local materials, use that to build these structures? You can get concrete anywhere in the world. Right? So it's an interesting type of material that I think there's a lot of use for.

The other one is energy installations, right? So most of these things are constructed in remote environments, be they dams or towers. And you need some way of providing these structures onsite and so getting skilled labor to move out into the middle of a cornfield in Iowa for nine months while you build a wind farm is troubling and problematic. So could you reduce the amount of labor capital that's necessarily to do that and increase the amount of renewable energy that we can provide to the US?

Dusty Weis:

Right, I think those are all really interesting scenarios to consider. And certainly I imagine that there are people in those industries following these developments very closely. That much said, with 3D printing as a newer technology, it's been demonstrated to be effective in a lot of areas, but it also has its fair share of limitations. What are those limitations that you've encountered so far with 3D printed concrete? What are the challenges you face? And how are you addressing them?

Dr. Brian Post:

Oh there's all kinds of challenges, that's one of the best parts about being a researcher, is that I get to try to understand what these challenges are and then look and dive deeper into 'em and figure out how we can try to solve them. Of course, there's material challenges, right? I need this magic material that flows well, can be pumped, but as soon as it exits the nozzle I want it to freeze up and form a geometry and stay there, right? So that's one.

Then I'm doing this layer by layer, so I wanna make sure that the layers bond with each other. I need some sort of reinforcement. I need to figure out how to include reinforcement in these structures, 'cause concrete can handle great compressive loads, but is poor intention. So I need to be able to put reinforcing elements in these things. The equipment is a completely nother challenge. And we're finding with additive there's some really interesting ways in which you can manipulate the way in which you're depositing material. Because it is what we call temporal/spacial deposition problem. Right?

So I am controlling the energy, the material, and the placement at the same time. On the metal systems for example, we found that by controlling the amount of energy, controlling the rate of cooling within an object, by changing the way in which we expose the material to energy, we can control the way in which the grain structure is formed. Right? So you can say, I want a certain grain structure on one part of my part. I want a different grain structure in another part of my part. And you can grade it in between. And so this is really a cool thing that you can do with this technology.

One of the problems is that we're not doing that today with this technology, right? And so each part that comes off the machine can be radically different. And so you wanna be able to understand how you can go and qualify these parts. Codes and standards are gonna be an incredible challenge to overcome to look at onsite construction because now I've got this material blend, it's happening over time it's not coming in one big truck. It's being generated over time. I can change the blend to suit the environment, or the specific structural needs. I need fiber on one location, I don't need fiber on another location.

I need steel in this location, I don't need steel in this location. I wanna build this up as a thicker wall, I want that a thinner wall. Right? Understanding how these challenges play into the way in which we build structures today, and the way that we qualify those builds as inspections and those critical standards organizations is really a major challenge.

Dusty Weis:

What's really funny to me is that when I asked you that question about the potential challenges you face, most people address challenges like, oh yeah there's this hurdle I've gotta get over. And your eyes light up, you're like, oh yeah problems to solve. It's that researcher/engineer mentality.

Dr. Brian Post:

That's exactly what I think our strength is. Is that we look at these big problems, we say, okay in seven months I wanna print a car. Right? And so that was one of the first things we do with a large polymer system is like in seven months we wanna be at IMTS printing a car. I say, okay that's the stretch goal. We wanna get there, what do we need to do now to get there? So we start trugging through things, we need material, we need a machine, we need a deposition system, we need some way of controlling the temperature in the environment, we need XYZ. Right?

And then you go, okay I do just enough to get me to that point where I build the car, and that was a huge stretch. We had to really shoot for the moon to get there. And then you go, okay now I'm gonna decompress after we've done that. And I say, okay what were the things that were problems, right? What are the things that were challenges? Can we go back and now systematically address those through a longterm research program so that we can really push this technology to where it needs to be, to be accepted by industry, be useful for people?

Dusty Weis:

So looking at 3D printed concrete then, where does that technology need to get, do you think, to be considered useful by the industry? What's your end goal for this tech?

Dr. Brian Post:

I don't like to set end goals for things. I think we need to develop what would be short-term applications. What can we start looking at that those standards might be reduced, disaster housing is a great one. Things where we can take technology and there's pieces missing today that we can directly apply it. And then we say, okay now as this technology progresses it's gonna get better and better and better and better. And how does that allow us to enable more applications, newer things?

I used to work in surgical robots, so that's why I keep coming up with these. But it was like, you know when the da Vinci Systems first came out there was like one FDA approved procedure that they could do. As the tool evolve and get better and better there's new procedures, there's new techniques that are being applied. Start to expand to all of these other procedures and the industry keeps growing. And I think we're seeing the same thing in additive, right?

Initially everybody says it's for prototyping. We're gonna build prototypes using this technology, and now we're getting to the point where we've switched from rapid prototyping, the moniker of rapid prototyping to additive manufacturing because people started to realize that if I get the right materials and I get the right process and I control it in the right way, then I can actually make something that would replace a traditionally manufactured component.

And I can do that in certain applications where there's a cost benefit analysis that says, this is more cost effective, or this is a better part. Or it reduces lifecycle energy, which is what we're really interested in. I think we're gonna get the same thing in construction. Right now there's probably some short-term places where it really fits well, and then we'll see as the technology progresses and gets better and better and you get the ability to control the structure of components. You get the ability to increase the geometric [inaudible 00:22:15], un-limits architect's freedom in designing new structures. See where it goes.

Dusty Weis:

I look at something like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona as, man I bet they wish they had some additive manufactured concrete technology to build that thing. But that much said, you were showing me some videos on your phone earlier of this concrete extruder in action running in your laboratory at Oak Ridge. A, if you're able to I'd love to share some of that video, we'll put a link in the description of the podcast and people can click and watch that on YouTube or whatever.

But what's it like for you to be onsite in the lab when they run this thing?

Dr. Brian Post:

Oh no, it's a blast. We have a tight team of researchers that are working on this problem. And it's rapid. The way in which we work, we try to shoot for these short-term goals just like printing the car, right? And so we say, well what are the things that we need to do today? What are the things that we need to do three months down the road? And when this machine's running it's really cool. Like I get to do the controls work on it which is a lot of fun because it's really this cable driven, flexible system that we get to try to make work. We've been working on calibration methods and we can get pretty accurate parts out of this thing. And it's pretty exciting 'cause it's this big spider-looking thing that's super quiet.

Most 3D printers are pretty loud, this thing doesn't make hardly any sound. It's just kinda cool making parts.

Dusty Weis:

Well watching the video was absolutely awesome. It kinda gives you goosebumps watching it in action. And I think it bears repeating that Oak Ridge National Laboratory is a department of energy federally funded laboratory that's open to anybody that wants to come in and partner with it. And so for our members who may be listening and have been considering exploring new uses for this kind of technology, how do they get involved with you?

Dr. Brian Post:

Oak Ridge was of course started during the Manhattan Project, looking at manufacturing technologies to make nuclear weapons. Since then, we've developed some really core strategic areas, new material development, high performance computing. Right now we have the world's faster super computer, that goes back and forth between us and China. Right now we have it. We have the world's most intense neutron source that provides the most intense continuous stream of neutrons for imaging.

And we have the manufacturing demonstration facility. We're looking at new manufacturing technologies, low-cost composites, additive manufacturing, roll to roll processing for making batteries and other kinds of technologies. And we're open to taking this base research, finding industrial applications, bringing industrial partners in, and working with them directly to try to solve challenges.

Dusty Weis:

And all of this aimed at helping US manufacturers stay among the leading manufacturers in the world.

Dr. Brian Post:

Exactly. Those are the partnerships that we're really proud and excited to continue.

Dusty Weis:

Well it's been an absolute pleasure to talk to you, Dr. Brian Post from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, thanks for joining us on the AEM Thinking Forward podcast.

Dr. Brian Post:

It's my pleasure. Thank you.

Dusty Weis:

Dr. Post was one of the featured speakers at our Thinking Forward event at the Airbus Experience Center in Washington, DC. And his talk created a real buzz among AEM members who came out for the event. Including Dave Frerking, the manager of Mobile Cranes at XCMG American Research Corporation.

Dave Frerking:

One of the things that's frustrated me about the construction industry and I'm in the crane side of the industry. I'll come out with a crane that's two foot longer than your crane and lifts another 100 pounds, and next year my competitor comes out with a crane that's two foot longer than mine and lifts 100 pounds more than mine. If I can get to know my customer better, and what new things are coming in industry, then that gives me the opportunity to build a product upfront that satisfies his needs and says, when he looks at something he says, yes, that's the product I need to do this job.

As opposed to just coming to him and saying, my product's now two foot longer than the one you bought last year. And that to me is what excites me about something like that and developing these new technologies, 'cause then I can go back and look at it and say, okay so these new technologies are coming. My customers are starting to look at this stuff. How can then I build equipment that's gonna satisfy the need to help support that?

Dusty Weis:

I couldn't help but notice that Dr. Post mentioned that his concrete extruder is suspended from a crane.

Dave Frerking:

Yeah, I noticed that too.

Dusty Weis:

I bet you did. Do you see that as being a potential area to really build out and expand the business?

Dave Frerking:

Absolutely. I mean, it's a new way of using a piece of mobile equipment that you haven't used it for in the past, so that's a new opportunity. Now it may close other places where you used it before and now you don't need to use it. For instance, if I'm doing a building like that maybe I don't put a tower crane on it anymore, I bring in a crawler crane and setup and do this kind of a job. But it's gonna be a dynamic changing market as it goes forward, just like it always has been.

Dusty Weis:

Paul Parker is the director of brand and customer experience at Volvo Construction.

Paul Parker:

It's amazing to look back to start off with the things that were new in 1993 and 1995 that they were talking about, that now we just accept. And so you can see that these people were bold enough to put this forward, which back then of course it was nowhere near as accepted. So when you see this now, and you see what's coming next, I mean at ConExpo we saw a 3D printed excavator.

And when they told us they were gonna do that I was fortunate enough to be on the CONEXPO - CON/AGG committee last time around and see some of this in the works, and it was incredible to see that they were talking about doing it. I thought, well they'll 3D print the arm. Or they'll 3D print a little part of it. They have this vision and this courage to do these things, and they're looking for people like us to partner with them and take those steps. And so I think that's an exciting prospect not just for AEM, but for the individual companies within.

Dusty Weis:

Seeing them make the leap then into concrete printing, does that open up do you think whole new doors for our industry? And where does that wind up in 5-10 years?

Paul Parker:

I think it stands to be one of those big moments that really shifts an entire industry. And someone having the vision to take something to that large of a scale to make that happen, it's really pushing the bounds. And again, it just takes a bold vision and it takes people committed to it.

Dusty Weis:

Anything else to add?

Paul Parker:

I just really enjoyed the experience. It's nice to take a break from you day-to-day and come to something like this. And really push your own limits a bit and really open your own mind up and you can see other people doing the same. And so part of that boldness builds when you see other companies and other people opening their minds up the same way.

Dusty Weis:

And with that endorsement ringing in your ears, well it's as good as time as any to tell you about the Thinking Forward events that you can attend in person this year. On May 14, we’re going to be in Detroit Michigan talking about autonomous vehicles and the future of mobility at the Henry Ford Center. As an added bonus, attendees get to take the Ford Rouge Factory tour and see the cutting edge manufacturing techniques in use there.

We've also got events on the calendar in September, October, and November. In Toronto, Milwaukee, and St. Louis. All the details at AEM.org/think where you can reserve your space now.

And that is going to wrap up this edition of the AEM Thinking Forward podcast. For more valuable industry insights, make sure that you're signed up for the AEM industry advisor, our twice weekly e-newsletter. Visit AEM.org/subscribe to get on that list.

If you need to get in touch with me directly, shoot me an email at podcast@aem.org. The AEM Thinking Forward podcast is brought to you by the association of equipment manufacturers. Little Glass Men does the music for AEM, thanks for listening. I'm Dusty Weis.

 

 

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