One company that is helping lead the transformation is French company XtreeE. In only five years, it has developed an industrialised solution to equip constructors with the technology to produce 3D printed buildings – and not just hardware. XtreeE offers a full solution, from digitalisation of the project through to production.
The company uses ABB six-axis robots and RobotStudio® software as part of industrialised 3D printing solutions, used by construction companies to produce new types of design-led building elements and components that cannot be achieved using normal construction methods.
XtreeE’s 3D printing solutions allows construction companies to produce unique designs that can be incorporated into building projects. This provides new possibilities for design for manufacture and new scope for the mass customization of structures at a competitive price.
"It is on demand, adaptable and tailor made"
President of XtreeE, Alban Mallet, sees the main advantages of 3D printing as flexibility: “It is on demand, adaptable and tailor made. One day you can make a table, the next day you can make a wall, the next day you can make street furniture - 3D printing will print with the same consistency time after time.”
The flexibility provided by the robots and RobotStudio® software is fundamental to meet the requirement for mass customization, with the robots able to be programmed to produce a range of different designs. This extreme flexibility is seen in XtreeE’s eclectic range of projects, from a reception desk in Dubai, to artificial reefs off the coast of France.
Higher strength per unit mass is another major plus point. “With 3D printing, we can use less materials for the same resistance. We can place the material exactly where the strength needs to be, as the load force will change according to the part of the structure. For example, when you cast a wall today, you cast it full because of its manufacturing process – with 3D printing you can place it where you need it.”
The freedom to make use of different materials is also an advantage. The technology allows the user to change the type of material being used to adapt to the product being made – a bridge or street furniture would need different material, but the robotic arm laying the material down remains the same. Although concrete is today’s material of choice, clay-based materials and plaster can also be used for specific tasks.
Despite the advantages, Mallet is no blinkered evangelist for 3D printing and knows it is not the ultimate answer for all construction tasks. “We need to educate companies about what 3D can and can’t do – what is possible, what makes sense, what makes no sense,” he says. “For example, making a square using 3D printing doesn’t make sense, it would be cheaper and more efficient using conventional techniques.”
Although some buildings have been printed directly on site, for Mallet, the era of complete on-site printing is not yet here: “For now we are just doing offsite production for it easily brings productivity, safety and quality, reducing onsite operations as much as possible Although we are looking at on-site 3D printing, it is not currently possible to get the necessary quality, productivity and security, as you would need to protect all elements around the 3D printer to secure and proof it against the weather.”
Mallet instead sees the way forward as developing an ecosystem of partners that have the facilities to allow offsite production with good quality control, shipping the finished printed element to the site for assembly.
"We need to help architects evolve"
Evolutionary rather than revolutionary in its outlook, Mallet sees building design remaining with architects: “We don’t want to be disruptive - it makes no sense. Instead, we need to help architects evolve and understand, to learn how to use the solution and how to make the profession itself evolve. That is why we are still working with architects, civil engineers, and constructors – because that’s the way the market is. We prefer to teach them what we know and to learn from them, changing the industry from the inside.”
This evolutionary approach is highlighted by XtreeE’s partnerships, which include a major cement producer and an international construction company with operations worldwide.
“Our cement producer partner sees 3D printing as an enabler with the ability to reduce the quantity of material,” says Mallet. “They need to get involved because their industry is changing, and they want to be part of the transformation. We are working with the company to improve the quality and certification and adaptability of materials and to work with local resources, such as local waste products, sand and glass.”
XtreeE is ambitious to change the way the construction industry thinks but accepts that despite the radical differences in technique represented by 3D printing, most actual construction will stay the same – as it states on its website, 3D printing proclaims the end of the mold, not the end of the world.
Says Mallet: “Digitalisation and automation will start to be embraced and we need to ensure that people in the industry learn how things are changing and how to engage with the technology. Maybe in 10 to 20 years, 3D printing will go deeper, but will still form part of the mix rather than the complete thing.
“The constructor will remain a constructor – we will still need their competencies to drive the project.”
- Combined with 3D printing, robots allow design-led building elements and components that cannot be achieved using normal construction methods.
- The robots and RobotStudio software offer the flexibility needed to achieve mass customization, with the robots able to be programmed to produce a range of different designs
XtreeE in brief
- Based in Rungis, Paris
- Assistance with architectural and technical design
- Production of 3D printed parts
- Installation of 3D printing systems for R&D
- Parametric modelling/design optimization
- R&R on new printable materials
- Installation of 3D printing systems for precast concrete