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Innovative 3D Concrete Printing Start Up Takes Root in Procter, BC

Jeff Sawyer
By Jeff Sawyer
March 20th, 2020

Witnessing the artful blend of a special mix of concrete illustriously shaping architectural formations at the Twente Additive Manufacturing (TAM) 3D printing facility is a thing of awe and beauty.

Their innovative approach to design output is fundamental to the goal of discovering and conceiving new ways of building design and constructing architectural forms that will save energy by reducing production time while substantially reducing material waste, conserving valuable resources and money. With all these important benefits, planning your next project with their innovative 3D printing design solutions may revolutionize how we all come to understand architectural applications for the region, and on a global level for years to come.

Right now 3D printed buildings are still very much in the experimental stages, but in early 2019 it was this inspiration that brought five friends from wind energy and the skateboard manufacturing industry iteratively into a singular universal objective; to set out to perfect concrete 3D printing technology for architectural forms and buildings.  

To date they have built three different printers in collaboration with other 3D printer manufacturers in the industry and have begun the heady research and development required to build homes out of extruded concrete using digital manufacturing concepts. Originally a Dutch start-up based in the Netherlands, now taking up residence in Procter BC, they have set the global construction industry on its ear within 12 months of coming into existence, and to celebrate that milestone they have constructed largest 9-axis 3D printer in the world!

To be able to boast by celebrating their first successful year of business by building the world’s largest 3D printer right here in the Kootenay’s will seem almost unimaginable to some.

One might think we already have good technologies for building different structures, we already make beautiful homes, apartments, and offices, how can there be any room for improvement? Now imagine rebuilding entire cities after a natural disaster, giving shelter to homeless people, creating vertical garden landscapes for food production, and generally building more sustainable habitats. These are only a few problems that 3D printing can help with and provide viable solutions for.

As a collective, they believe this technology will help to disrupt and innovate the entire construction industry, and Twente Additive Manufacturing (TAM) strives to be the world’s premier developer of advanced construction methods through automation integration and modern materials research in an effort to create sustainable and long-term building solutions that reduce the over consumption behaviours of humankind, and they are incredibly proud to apply that technology within the beautiful areas of Nelson and Procter.

“Within a few months of launching we were barely in the Netherlands at all,” states Ian Comishin, president and cofounder who went on to explain how Twente-AM went global very quickly.

“They have already installed a robotic printer in South Germany, and a gantry printer in Western Canada. However, their most massive project undertaken in their inaugural year was to create a 3D printer using a conventional ABB 6-axis robot but placed on a gantry-like structure capable of moving 5 meters high and 10 meters long giving the machine a staggering printing footprint of 391 m³.

“The main role of this huge printer will be to create leave-in-place formwork for the construction of concrete homes to be built in British Columbia.”  Explains Comishin. The highly detailed prints that are made from a mortar material that cures within minutes allows for elaborate shapes and artistic features that would be otherwise impossible to create using conventional form work.

Within a just a few days of completing the machine, Twente Additive Manufacturing was presenting at the Big5 Construction show in Dubai and they chose to take the very risky marketing leap by showcasing their machines in operation while live streaming. Throughout the exhibition people stared in awe as increasingly complicated parts came to life, some crashing out, but most of them completed in a stunning array that has been making people around the world rethink the possibilities of 3D printing for architecture.

“We came away from Dubai with about 250 leads of new construction companies, architects, concrete fabricators and many more people looking to add 3D printing to their offering,” says Adam Ruhmjahn, director of Operations.

They are proud yet humble. “We couldn’t be where we are now without collaborating with other talented members of the industry,” says Tim Brodesser, head of R&D… “We didn’t make this ourselves, this technology is at the very early adoption stage and working with the other companies and academic institutions throughout the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, The UK and Canada who are taking on the challenge of solving 3D printing for home building is what Twente’s foundation is built upon.”

The Head of Engineering at Twente-am is Jonathan Ladouceur, who was quick to point out that their machines are designed to do much more than home construction. “There were a few viral videos talking about super cheap houses built in very short time frames, which is interesting… but not enough people have come to realize just how versatile this technology is.”

The list of architectural objects that can be 3D printed is virtually infinite, freeform design makes it possible to have lofty curved walls and highly ornate sculptures that would be insanely expensive if cast from traditional concrete formwork.  “There is virtually no set-up time” points out Jim Ziemlanski, Twente’s site director for the R&D facility in Nelson (Procter), “We are printing staircases, planter-pots and benches all within a few cm of each other on the same day and the very next day there will be whole footing form for a glass house in the exact same place.”

In this edition of The Daily Dose, Editor Jeff Sawyer gets ahead of the 3D printing curve with Ian Comishin, President and Co-founder of Twente Additive Manufacturing, to find out how this disruptive approach to architectural applications will create impact and have a long-lasting impact on the future of building construction.

I’m quite fascinated that the largest format 9-axis 3D printer in the world, specializing in architectural applications, was constructed and is currently housed in Procter, BC. How is this even possible? Can you bring me through the iterative development that made this all come to fruition?

The reason why Procter was chosen is because it is considered part of the catch basin of Nelson, which is one of the most beautiful cities in the world with off the chart quality of life metrics in all of the Americas. There are starting to be a number of bedroom communities popping up around Nelson and we had an opportunity to do experimental building in the phenomenal real estate project called Kootenay Lake Village. This was our third printer we built however, and it was so big we had no choice but to do our first assembly of it in its final location as we do not have the space in the Netherlands to make such a large structure.

With respect to our audience, can you please explain what a 9-axis 3D printer is and what it is capable of?

Six axis robots are some of the most common forms of automation across virtually all digital manufacturing platforms. They vaguely mimic human arms and are quite recognizable in a lot of films such as iRobot used for assembling automobiles. We have taken one of those robots, which normally have a limited reach that looks a little bit like a sphere, and then mounted it onto three more axes. This new ‘body’ allows the machine to move left to right, up and down and rotate the arm anywhere in the building we want. It gives us almost 10 times the volume of print space.

As a company what do you want to achieve at TAM, what is your purpose?

The Concrete 3D Printing Industry is definitely still at the very early adoption stage. Our role is to help the thousands of construction and architectural firms looking to add 3D printing to their toolbox to get fitted with the right equipment, partnerships, material suppliers and design techniques to get the most of what this technology can offer. There have been a few viral videos online with exaggerated claims that have gotten a lot of people excited about houses being built for too-good-to-be-true pricing in too good-to-be-true timeframes. I would estimate that ninety percent of the people who watch these videos and then do a commercial verification of the technology come to learn that there is some snake oil being sold and they start their journey into 3DCP from a place of disappointment. Its frustrating because we want people to stay excited for what actually can be done, because it is amazing enough that it doesn’t need exaggeration.

What we do, is provide a deep dive into these potential clients’ business models and help them choose the right way to get into this. We can build machines or point our clients to other machine builders who have the exact product they need for their applications and then we help them get up and running and provide the post installation support so that they can start growing their own knowledge base on how to get the most of this revolutionary building process.

How do you think 3D Printing will re-shape standard and conventional architectural and building practices?

First and foremost, the revolutionary aspect 3DCP offers the architectural and building world, is the ability to introduce free-form design as easily as boring old straight-line designs. We can build a home for the little old lady who wants to live in a concrete shoe with all the scuffs and nicks, laces and holes for the same price as a concrete box.  A curved piece of 3D printed formwork is just as easy to make if not easier than a rectangular plywood form, and the latter has to be removed and thrown into the dump while the printed formwork becomes part of the permanent structure itself. We can program textures, patterns, art or whatever we want into the exposed surface of the forms and they become the cosmetic feature that is the final look of the building.

This disruptive approach to building will certainly have a long-lasting effect on the future, what is Twente Additive Manufacturing’s main goal and objective overall?

Right now, when people buy a new home or have a new home built, they often arrive to a bunch of empty rooms, which they then have to fill with furniture. These days furniture is more often than not, showing up as flat-stacked woodchip construction that you have to assemble yourself and which inevitably finds its way into a landfill by the second time you try to move it somewhere. Because a wall made by a 3D printer doesn’t have to be a straight line, it can curve out to form a shelf, a dinner table, a mattress frame or whatever else virtually every single home needs to be livable. We have this romantic notion that well-designed 3D printed homes will be so much more livable because the architects and interior designers will be able to ergonomically analyze how the home will be used and reduce the need for people to consume so much on home improvements. This will make less waste and give people more disposable income for travel, education or whatever. I would not say this is the main goal of Twente-AM to put companies like IKEA out of business, but if our company can somehow or other cut down on the number of garbage-truck trips to the dump, we will be doing our part.

3D printing takes advantage of traditional methods and materials, bringing any idea into the physical world in an easier and cheaper way. Can you give me a breakdown of the different types of forms, objects and elements you can potentially create and produce at TAM? 

Honestly, this is an infinite list. There will of course be a focus on our first projects to be elements related to the architectural requirements that go into building construction. However, we are also working in collaboration with a company in the renewable energy sector with designs to use 3D printed concrete for installation elements; a company in the glass industry looking to use 3D prints as moulds for elaborate window designs, and a company looking to build walls in skyscrapers. These are just a few of the people who have come to us. I am pretty sure that if every industry out there working in the physical realm sat down for a few moments and dreamed up how this could improve their business they would be able to. We are proud to be on the advisory group at Saxion University in Enschede, Netherlands, which has just announce their intention to conduct a research project on how this technology can be applied across as many applications as possible… we are very excited to see what the project leader Ivo Vrooijink, and the rest of his team release on the subject next year.

What types of sustainable materials are you experimenting with for output with your 3D Printer?

This is definitely a conundrum for us. We are acutely aware that Portland style cement production is a hyper CO2 creating process and we have probably been falsely patting ourselves on the back a bit for believing that if we can prevent a few logging trucks from pulling down the CO2 gobbling forests that this is offsetting some of that. A concrete house that lasts longer than 5 wooden houses is a start, but it is nowhere near enough. There have been some amazing accomplishments in the geopolymer industry, which looks like it could have some amazing replacement applications in 3D printing instead of using Portland cement. People are experimenting with hemp-crete and other plant-based mortars, so this is an area of optimism for us.

Another consolation prize is that leave-in-place formwork has an immediate benefit in that there is a drastic reduction in construction site waste. Forms used for regular cement pouring can seldom be used more than 5 or 6 times before it is destroyed.

Are you capable of applying site-specific ideas and customizations into engineering and development plans for buildings?

This is an area we are very excited about. Starting this spring we are building our first house designed off of a point cloud. What that means is that we had a laser scan performed on the house build site which is on the edge of a cliff bank next to a lake where there are several elements of bedrock protruding through the soil. The laser creates millions of data points that we convert into a digital surface used for creating the home’s shape and positioning. Normally a builder would have to hire a dynamite team or large excavation equipment to come in and destroy the rocks so they can start from a flat surface to construct the building. In this case however, the rock features are programmed into the printer so that we can print a footing shape that will hug the bedrock surface allowing us to anchor to it as a part of the home’s structural integrity. In this way, nature forms the house rather than the house reforming nature. 

With technological advances and innovations rapidly opening the door to further expectations of what can be achieved with 3D printing. As a company, what do you envision and consider could be realized one day?

Right now, the biggest buzz in construction is BIM, which is an acronym for Building Information Model. Architectural software such as Revit, are very rapidly becoming the mainstream method for construction design, in which all aspects can be documented into one digital file. For example, the electrical outlets, plumbing parts and even paint finish can be referenced in one 3D display. Soon to be gone are the days of huge paper drawings unrolled on build sites with a gang of suits staring down, pointing off in the distance and then wandering off to tell crew bosses to disassemble something and rebuild it 20 cm to the left.

The digital model will eventually allow for workers to use augmented reality on their phones to properly place elements where the designers intended. In my opinion, in the not so distant future we will actually include site data collection that will update the geometry in the digital model that could lead to changes in the downstream processes on the build. An example of how Twente-AM hopes to lead into that future, is by using optical and other sensors to analyze the final results of our prints and create a closed loop between the BIM and the real world construction results, where the differences between the as-designed and as-printed will be documented real time into the model all the other workers will be referencing.

Does she (TAM’s 9-Axis 3D Printer) have a name?

Definitely, we have been calling it ‘The Doucinator’, because it was largely designed by our head of engineering, Jonathan Ladouceur, and because we had a lot of help from our friends at Baumit who have a machine called ‘The Bauminator’. We also wanted to also pay homage to them. Jonathan hates the name, but we all come from the last generation of kids who weren’t allowed to give ourselves nicknames, so, neither should our robots be allowed the same courtesy. 

To gain more insight in the development into Twente Additive Manufacturing and the largest 9-Axis 3D Printer in the world, here is a video explaining how they completed the project and ‘The Doucinator’, see below.

Twente Additive Manufacturing in the Middle East at the Big 5 Dubai International Construction Trade Show demonstrating their innovative printing techniques:

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