We’ve seen some pretty impressive uses of carbon fiber in recent years thanks to advances in 3D printing. Where manual layups and limited-use tools have kept a lid on what we can do with carbon fiber materials, large-scale 3D printing has the potential of entirely changing the game. What’s more, 3D printing is getting bigger. Could it be that the technology might be scaled up to print an entire building? It’s possible.
There’s little doubt that 3D printing is getting bigger. Engineers are figuring out how to make bigger printers while scientists are hard at work creating new composites that can be cured in place. A good example of what can be done is a brand-new piece of artwork recently installed in Nashville, Tennessee.
The structure stands about 20 feet tall in Nashville’s OneC1TY neighborhood. It is 42 feet wide as well, making for a very impressive sight that is hard to ignore. Manufacturer Branch Technology claims the work is the largest 3D-printed structure in the world. Their claim is open for debate depending on your view of the work’s construction and assembly.
How They Did It
At issue is the fact that Branch Technology did not print the entire structure as a single 3D piece. They printed multiple sections that were transported to the site and assembled. So while the piece may be the largest structure made from 3D printed components, it may not be fair to say that it is the largest 3D-printed structure.
That aside, what Branch Technology accomplished is no small feat. For starters, they developed a unique ABS plastic and carbon fiber material that cures in place. Unlike more conventional printing materials, their hybrid material does not need to be heated, cooled, and then layered. The printer simply lays out the structure and allows it to naturally cure where it stands.
The company’s other impressive feat is the 3D printer itself. It is one of the largest such printers ever made. It features a 12.5-foot robotic arm moving on a 33-foot rail. The rail moves vertically above the printing surface while the robotic arm moves horizontally. The combination of the two axes allows the printer head to move to any position on the printing grid.
Rock West Composites, a Utah company that provides clients with carbon fiber and other composite materials, explained that 3D printing is the future of the composites industry. It offers a lot of benefits that just cannot be achieved with manual layups and autoclave curing.
A Whole New Composites World
We are still a long way from realizing a 3D printing method capable of cost-effectively creating an entire building from the ground up. And yet, think of the possibilities here. As 3D printing with composite materials gets bigger, the possibilities grow with it. Imagine what might be possible just a couple of decades from now.
Imagine steel trusses that are manufactured in a plant and then hauled to a construction site for assembly. What if those same trusses could be 3D-printed in place using composites that are stronger than steel? Imagine being able to print support columns for bridges, composite roofs, and the like. Imagine being able to print affordable homes that are both strong and environmentally friendly.
Printing with composite materials and 3D printers is literally growing up before our very eyes. Things are getting bigger and better with every passing day. There is no way to say where all of this will lead, but few doubt that it will lead to very big things – both literally and figuratively.