The world has been "about to be revolutionized" by 3D printing for years now, but aside from rapid prototyping, 3D selfies, and the occasional gimmicky 3D-printed house, we don't see much of it every day. So why hasn't this technology revolutionized modern infrastructure? One reason is that it still has to compete with concrete, one of the cheapest, most versatile, and efficiently delivered materials in the history of architecture. At the Chicago Architecture Biennial, Self-Assembly Lab at MIT and Gramazio Kohler Research of ETH Zurich showed off a process that might finally one-up concrete, using only a 3D printing extruder, rocks, string, and smart design.
Last week, the team presented Rock Print, showcasing their process for a minimal waste alternative to concrete-heavy building processes that doesn't require jackhammers or explosives to remove. By jamming rocks together with algorithmically placed string, they create an aesthetically pleasing 13-foot-tall column. "We are using a similar technique to powder-based printing," Skylar Tibbits explains to The Creators Project. "There is a container, material is deposited layer by layer and a 'binder; (in this case the string) is applied to each layer in the specific pattern of the slice."
Installation project lead Andreas Thoma of Gramazio Kohler Research adds adds, "When structures are aggregated from crushed gneiss, we get load bearing structures that can withstand enormous forces." Self-contained and able to be shaped in a wide range of designs, the real magic of Rock Print comes when you want the column gone: just wind the string up, pack up the rocks, and it's like it was never there. "The ability to digitally fabricate, disassemble, and reassemble structures with no material losses changes the paradigm of architecture as well as the view of permanent / temporary architecture," Thoma continues.
MIT and ETH Zurich have been testing materials, string patterns, and fabrication methods since 2014, but the inspiration for the project goes back all the way to 2012. Chicago University professor Dr. Heinrich Jaeger hosted a meeting of minds from architecture, physics, and the material sciences to see how they might practically employ the "jamming phenomenon," which is what happens on a physical level when when you cram a bunch of stuff into one spot. MIT and ETH Zurich met at that conference, and what they have to show for it is pretty incredible, but it's just the start.
As Thoma puts it, "This is the beginning of the research and a step towards an alternative to concrete."