Opinion

Digital concrete and 4D smart materials – A new dawn for the construction industry

Gaurav Das

Manager, Technology and New Business, Renotech

03.08.2022

I’ve worked over a decade in circular economy and recently came across a startling fact: 950 tonnes of construction waste is produced every minute in the EU. This is enough waste to fill up an entire football field. It quickly became clear to me that we need better construction processes and greener materials.

One solution is an emerging trend called 3D concrete printing (3DCP). There are many names for it, including additive manufacturing and digital fabrication, but in our context 3DCP is basically layer-by-layer extrusion of concrete. This is a unique area which brings together different experts, such as material scientists, software developers, designers, structural engineers, automation experts and most importantly creative visionaries, to formulate tomorrow’s innovations.

Digitalisation changes every aspect of construction and affects the entire life cycle of a building, from the design process and automated construction all the way to maintenance. 3DCP has the potential to reduce waste, create innovative new structures – which were not possible before – and contribute to the construction industry’s green transition. In addition, we can further bring down our carbon footprint by using secondary raw materials, such as recycled aggregates and green cement.

Image of a 3D printed wall

3D printing isn’t only for small objects. It can be used in a variety of ways in construction as well. Image: Adobe / Dottedyeti

So-called 4D smart materials can be used to make 3D-printed structures more resilient. These are materials that can have self-healing properties. In the 3DGREEN-CON consortium and R&D project, co-funded by the European Innovation Council (EISMEA), we have developed the world’s first 3D-printable self-healing concrete. Although more research is still required, we are very optimistic about the concrete’s future prospects. This breakthrough would not have happened without Finland’s unique competence in advanced materials science and digital technologies.

Furthermore, the application potential of this technology is immense. It could be used in terrestrial applications, such as houses, offices, building elements and sculptures. But there is also a huge array of more exotic areas, such as marine applications in artificial reefs (kala-koti) and sea walls which can be used for marine ecosystem restoration. An even more niche area are structures for underwater living, which are a big deal in many coastal countries plagued by rising sea levels. I believe Finland can be a big exporter of these new emerging hi-tech products and, with climate change looming, these products are needed more than ever.

“Digitalisation changes every aspect of construction and affects the entire life cycle of a building”

For those wondering whether there is enough grassroots interest in these materials or if young talent finds them an interesting area, the answer is a big “yes”. During my teaching sessions at a German university, I found that not only did the young talents understand the underlying concepts of technology and sustainability that I taught, but they actively promoted them by taking things one step further and asking about the possibility of creating 3D-printed habitats on other planets.

Countries such as France, Switzerland and the Netherlands are far ahead globally in 3D printing in construction. Not only have they been beneficiaries of generous EU R&D grants, but they also have significant national government subsidies for pilots and essential permits in this sector, which have been received enthusiastically by local municipalities. In the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands, various structures, including offices, houses and bridges, have already been 3D printed. In Mexico, an entire block of one-storey houses was 3D printed.

It would be good to see similar enthusiasm in Finland. I’m hopeful it could create a more innovative and sustainable future. I invite European research and technology organisations, universities, corporations, public bodies and funding organisations to collaborate and supercharge innovation, implementation and application of this new emerging industry 4.0 trend.

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