Bio-inspired: How lobsters can help make stronger 3D printed concrete

Bio-inspired: How lobsters can help make stronger 3D printed concrete

New research shows that patterns inspired by lobster shells can make 3D printed concrete stronger, to support more complex and creative architectural structures.

Digital manufacturing technologies like 3D concrete printing (3DCP) have immense potential to save time, effort and material in construction.

They also promise to push the boundaries of architectural innovation, yet technical challenges remain in making 3D printed concrete strong enough for use in more free-form structures.

In a new experimental study led by Vietnamese-born and Australia-based researcher Dr Phuong (Jonathan) Tran at RMIT University, the natural strength of lobster shells was used as an inspiration to design special 3D printing patterns.

news-3d-concrete-printing-2 The lobster-inspired patterns increase the strength of the 3D printed concrete.

Their bio-mimicking spiral patterns improved the overall durability of the 3D printed concrete, as well as enabling the strength to be precisely directed for structural support where needed.

When the team combined the twisting patterns with a specialised concrete mix enhanced with steel fibres, the resulting material was stronger than traditionally-made concrete.

Dr Tran said 3D printing and additive manufacturing opened up opportunities in construction for boosting both efficiency and creativity.

“3D concrete printing technology has real potential to revolutionise the construction industry, and our aim is to bring that transformation closer,” said Dr Tran, a senior lecturer in structured materials and design at RMIT.

“We know that natural materials like lobster exoskeletons have evolved into high-performance structures over millions of years, so by mimicking their key advantages we can follow where nature has already innovated.”

3D printing for construction

A 3D concrete printer builds houses or makes structural components by depositing the material layer-by-layer, unlike the traditional approach of casting concrete in a mould.

With the latest technology, a house can be 3D printed in just 24 hours for about half the cost, while construction on the world's first 3D printed community began in 2019 in Mexico.

The emerging industry is already supporting architectural and engineering innovation, such as a 3D printed office building in Dubai, a nature-mimicking concrete bridge in Madrid and The Netherlands’ sail-shaped “Europe Building”.

The research team in RMIT’s School of Engineering focuses on 3D printing concrete, exploring ways to enhance the finished product through different combinations of printing pattern design, material choices, modelling, design optimisation and reinforcement options.

Supporting complex structures

The results showed strength improvement from each of the patterns, compared with unidirectional printing, but Dr Tran said the spiral patterns hold the most promise for supporting complex 3D printed concrete structures.

“As lobster shells are naturally strong and naturally curved, we know this could help us deliver stronger concrete shapes like arches and flowing or twisted structures,” he said.

“This work is in an early stage so we need further research to test how the concrete performs on a wider range of parameters, but our initial experimental results show we are on the right track.”

The research was part of the PhD work by Dr Luong Pham, who is also from Vietnam and the first PhD candidate at RMIT University to focus on this area of research.

Further studies will be supported through a new large-scale mobile concrete 3D printer recently acquired by RMIT – making it the first research institution in the southern hemisphere to commission a machine of this kind.

The 5×5m robotic printer will be used by the team to research the 3D printing of houses, buildings and large structural components.

The team will also use the machine to explore the potential for 3D printing with concrete made with recycled waste materials such as soft plastic aggregate. 

news-bio-inspired-how-lobsters-can-help-make-stronger-3d-printed-concrete-2-new RMIT University Senior Lecturer Dr Phuong (Jonathan) Tran leads a 3D printing technology research team at RMIT University’s School of Engineering in Melbourne, Australia.

Potential to promote 3D printing in Vietnam

According to Dr Tran, 3D printing has been at the forefront of the modern advanced manufacturing movement around the world. Major industries such as aerospace, automotive and healthcare have been investing in this technology at different scales.

“Though 3D printing technology is still in its infancy in Vietnam, the country’s ambition for this technology has been articulated in the Government’s plans to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” he said.

The RMIT researcher added that Australia and especially RMIT have invested significantly in research, development, and training for this manufacturing technology in recent years.

He believes RMIT's capability in this area will provide mutual opportunity for research and training collaboration.

“I have established collaborations with several universities in Vietnam including Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology (HUTECH) and VinUniversity, with projects focusing on 3D printing,” Dr Tran said.

“I hope we will be able to expand the collaborations further to provide more opportunities for Vietnamese students and researchers to access state-of-the-art technology developed at RMIT.”

Story: Gosia Kaszubska, additional reporting by Ngoc Hoang

Video: Carelle Mulawa-Richards

Masthead: Lobster x-ray. Image by Florian Elias Rieser, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

  • Engineering
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