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Printing lab at UNM puts school ahead of the curve

Civil engineer and doctoral candidate Daniel Marcia, left, and civil engineer Dr. Moneeb Genedy operate UNM’s new 3D concrete printer. (Courtesy of UNM)

The University of New Mexico could become a national leader in research, development and training for emerging 3D construction printing technologies, thanks to the new Dana C. Wood Materials and Structures Lab at the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

The lab, which opened last month and is located on the ground floor of UNM’s Centennial Engineering Building, thrusts the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering into the forefront of next-generation trends in the construction industry, according to Mahmoud Taha, department chair and distinguished professor.

The lab includes two new 3D concrete printers, as well as 3D carbon fiber printing technology that can create components and materials for the construction of everything from buildings to bridges.

“It’s a quantum leap in our capacity and capabilities in the civil engineering school, both for research and in educating our students,” Taha said. “We’ll make it a direct part of our curriculum to expose all our students to state-of-the-art 3D printing of concrete and carbon fibers.”

Only a few U.S. universities have these technologies, Engineering Dean Christos Christodoulou said.

“It makes us very competitive,” Christodoulou said. “We can team up with much bigger schools that don’t have these technologies, because it allows us to do a lot more that we couldn’t do before. This is cutting-edge technology that industry doesn’t even have yet.”

So-called 3D construction and concrete printing have been under development for more than 20 years, but they’re only now emerging as viable technology, thanks to major advances in the past decade. Civil engineers expect it to fundamentally change industry’s approach to construction.

“It’s a game changer,” Taha said. “It will change the materials and components we use for construction and the methods for how we build things. … It will require entirely new standards and codes for structures made with 3D printing.”

Engineers worldwide are creating two levels of large-scale additive manufacturing. One focuses on 3D printing of structures and components that are later shipped to construction sites.

That could include fully finished things such as concrete pedestrian bridges that developers can simply install. It also includes specially designed components to add features or repair things at much lower cost than today’s technologies and methods.

The other is direct, on-site construction of everything from houses to office buildings with cranes and robots to manage 3D printing of structures. Apart from potentially revolutionizing terrestrial-based construction, NASA envisions using those techniques to eventually build bases on Mars and the moon. It’s already financing that research at labs in the U.S., and UNM is now discussing potential NASA funding for a similar project, Taha said.

UNM’s new lab can help develop all those things. The two newly installed concrete printers – one a flat-frame machine that builds things in layers from the base upward and the other a circular moving printer for more complex shapes – will allow researchers to experiment with structures, and, perhaps more important, with the materials used to make concrete printing inks.

Engineers need to strengthen and enhance concrete mixes with different elements, including nano materials, Taha said. More environmentally friendly concrete mixes that use recycled materials are also emerging.

“Rather than just think concrete, in the future we’ll think in terms of construction ink,” Taha said. “We’ll develop different mixes for every type of construction. We don’t even know yet what those inks will be, but the lab will allow our students, the next-generation engineers, to develop new inks.”

Carbon fiber in particular will play a critical role in future construction, with carbon-based rebars slowly replacing steel in structures.

“Use of carbon fiber in construction is still small, but it will become very significant as costs drop,” Taha said. “It’s lightweight and corrosion-free.”

UNM’s new 3D carbon printers can rapidly design and custom-build components at a fraction of today’s costs, Taha said. And they can add in fiber optics for sensing and monitoring directly into the components. In fact, the lab includes a filament maker for fiber optics.

Apart from the 3D printing equipment, the lab includes an array of high-tech machinery for materials analysis of chemical, mechanical and thermal characteristics, as well as machines for structural testing of components.

Enclosed impact machines, for example, apply extreme pressure to materials and structures with laser imaging to record reactions. Another machine simulates earthquakes.

There’s also a concrete materials lab with traditional and high-tech concrete mixers.

The lab is now valued at between $8 million and $10 million, Taha said. UNM already owned most of the structural testing and materials analysis equipment.

The new 3D concrete and carbon fiber printers, however, were paid for with $500,000 from a $3 million donation made to the engineering school by the late Dana C. Wood, a UNM alum who passed away in 2013.

His donation will have a lasting impact.

“Students graduating five years from now will be working in industries that will expect them to know about these technologies,” Taha said. “Schools that are behind the game will be at a disadvantage. UNM is now ahead of the curve.”

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