An oft mentioned barrier to the widespread adoption of additive manufacturing is the limited types of materials that can be used in the 3D printing process; after all, it’s not very practical to build a house out of ABS plastic.  But, as we’re seeing on a daily basis, companies, universities, and independent makers are knocking those barriers down all of the time.  As the range of materials that can be used to print has expanded from plastic to metal to wood to concrete to biological tissue, the potential for additive manufacturing has grown remarkably.  Thanks to Sasha Jokic, Starsk Lara and Nasim Fashami from the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia in Barcelona, we can add clay to the list of printable materials.

The students’ intent was to develop an automated method for constructing buildings out of a material that could readily be found in the natural environment.  This lead them to one of humanity’s oldest building materials. The students point out in their thesis publication that clay is naturally occurring so that its use does not cause pollution and, “from an economic sustainable point of view, clay is very cheap and accessible material.” But, after experimenting with different combinations of clay and water, the team realized that, only with a bit of plastic, could they extrude a stable structure.

The following is a video explanation of how they mixed the clay concoction:

The students then had to create their own extruder that used air pressure from a compressor to push the clay out onto their build surface.  And, with the use of a ShopBot CNC machine sent to a computer through Processing or a KUKA industrial robot arm in communication with their computer through Arduino, they were able to program their machines to build elaborate clay configurations.

This video shows the robot arm building the structure:

The result looks like some strange synthesis of human, robotic and organic architecture, a structure that’s grown up from the ground by robots under human guidance.

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Alongside Enrico Dini’s sand and sea salt-based manufacturing process, the students at IAAC are paving the way towards an environmentally sustainable method of construction that combines modern technology with age-old building materials so that we may, one day soon, see new adobe villages with a 3D printing twist.  Imagine a clay home that heats in the winter and cools in the summer in the most geometrically efficient way possible, thanks to computer-aided design. While the project is still relatively small in scale, as they have yet to create actual buildings, Sasha, Starsk and Nasim have shown that the size of what can be printed is only limited to the imagination and, when they do get around to building that sci-fi clay domicile, you can be sure that 3D Printing Industry will be there to cover it.

Sources: The Method Case, FabClay