Photo by Sasa Jokic

Printing the future

An interview with Petr Novikov on the new 3D-​printing technologies by Georgy Aygunyan

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An interview with Petr Novikov

An interview by Georgy Aygunyan

Petr Novikov holds a Master’s degree in architecture from the Moscow Architectural Institute and a Master of Advanced Architecture degree from the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia. In 2013, together with Saša Jokić, he invented a new 3D printing technology – Mataerial - that creates objects by forming three-dimensional curves.

Petr has given numerous lectures on robotics in architecture at widely known conferences, such as 3D Printing Event and Campus Party. In 2013, he was featured in ICON Magazine as one of 50 people pushing the boundaries of architecture.
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Hello Petr! You graduated from two architectural universities, why did you become an inventor and start doing 3D Printing and robotics?

I started doing this when I went to IAAC and studied in the studio of Marta MaléAlemany. She is a pioneer of the theory of construction robotics and she worked on the theory of how construction robotics will change architecture. I started doing this because, for me, architecture is too subjective, but in robotics everything seems to be easier, it is more exact and I like it more. And because technology has always been changing architecture, the new technology, namely, construction robotics, will change it further and make the next step in changing architecture.

So you want to change architecture at the level of technological change?

Yes, yes, that sounds better.

You and Saša Jokić invented a new method of 3D printing; can you tell me more details about it?

Using three dimensional curves, we create an object and its faces

This method is a logical step in the development of 3D printing. Now 3d printing works by the principle of layering: a 3d model is divided into horizontal sections, then generated into a physical object, in many different ways and from different materials, such as metal, plastic, etc. It works by dividing the model into parallel sections and immediately creates a lot of problems, especially for printing on a large scale. There has to be some support material under any overhanging elements, because the printer cannot print in the air, and all this translates into a large amount of excess material, similar to the construction of the formwork. During construction there is a lot of garbage and no one needs this. The task was to devise a method of 3D printing which retains all the possibilities of 3D printing, namely the creation and customisation of complex shapes, but which does not require any supporting members. So we came to the idea of 3D printing which is not using horizontal sections but 3dimensional curves. We create the object and its face by means of 3 dimensional curves. And due to the fact that we use a special material and extrusion technology, we have the ability to print without supporting material while actually aloft. Thus, this architecture could lead to us being able to print complex shapes without supporting material or any formwork, and thus increase the possibilities of forming while at the same time reducing the amount of waste material.

Photo by Sasa Jokic

You made a prototype robotic arm, which works according to this new method of 3D printing; could you talk a little bit about it?

One of the key innovations is the use of thermosetting polymers instead of the thermoplastics that are used in existing 3D printers. A chemical reaction between the two components of the thermosetting polymer causes the material to solidify as soon it comes out of the nozzle, making it possible to print hanging curves. So, the knowhow is the material, the extrusion of this material, the time calculation of the extrusion speed and the speed of movement of the print head.

Okay, and what about the advantages? I’ve heard that it can work without gravity, i.e. in space?

Oh, yeah. Now the using of 3D printing in space is a very hot topic. And one of the problems is that the methods of 3D printing that exist now can not be applied in space. There are printers which work with powder and liquid, which will not work in space because they will not take the desired shape, and it will just fly away. There are printers that work with extrusion technology, but these printers have some problems even back on Earth, because the stuff that comes out of the printer starts to scatter formlessly. On the contrary, our technology allows printing even where there is no gravity. Now NASA is planning to make a programme for sending a 3d printer into space to print missing parts. The idea is to avoid sending each time the supply vehicle worth several million dollars to the ISS and to enable astronauts to print something themselves. I think this could be a very important application in the future, just like the colonisation of other planets.

Photo by Sasa Jokic

How can this method be used in architecture and construction? What new features will appear in the design process, what materials will be used in the construction, and what will walls and windows look like?

…wall will transform smoothly into a window

It is in fact a very important thing, because robots and 3D printing cannot exist without the use of new materials. The research topic of robots in building construction has become quite extensive. There are already a number of studies that use robots to repeat the processes that already exist in construction, it is not a new approach, it just automates the methods workers use now. For example, there are robots that optimise the time of laying bricks, pouring concrete. There are many similar projects and it does not bring anything new. It is difficult to call these machines that make the construction process a little bit faster robotics. There is some very good research at MIT, where they made a machine that can change the density of concrete, so that one block of concrete has completely different characteristics in its different parts. It seems to me that there is a high probability that in the fairly near future, instead of insulation, windows, waterproofing, etc., there will be a single body, which will have different properties in its different parts. And this ability to control the material is possible only with the help of robots, because it is impossible to do it by hand. With the help of robots, we can reduce the amount of material used, which gives us many benefits. As in the MIT research, they found much interest and say that if you use their method, which is quite simple it’s just the addition of air bubbles in different parts of the concrete they can save up to 30% of the concrete used in buildings, and on the scale of the city, that is a fantastic amount of material. It should thus change architecture itself. As for the windows, it is also quite an interesting question. I do not really know how it will look, but it is possible that over time, the window might not look like it looks now, and you will not be able to understand exactly where it begins and where it ends. This part of the wall will be a little more translucent, another transparent and the third a little more translucent again. In general, the wall will fade smoothly into a window or something like that, maybe. In fact, it is a very interesting topic of smart materials. But it is not up to me.

Schemes by Petr Novikov

What will these construction robots look like and what functions they will perform?

What will these construction robots look like? There is such a pretty powerful humanoid research, that is, when we are talking about robots, we always somehow imagine them from movies or Asimov’s books. We imagine humanoid robots that will go to the construction site and lay bricks. We just don’t think of a large construction crane, which is controlled not by man but by a computer. I think a very important topic in this building robotics theme is that of a swarm of robots, namely of little robots, each one with its own function, I am doing research in this area just now. Now it is a very hot topic. These are the same robots, hawkers for Amazon, for DHL, and also swarm robots; they fly, they have a centre that controls them and they communicate with eachother. There are a lot of different types of swarm robots and every day there are more and more. I think in construction there will also appear small, easily transportable robots.

Why will robots be small in size? If standardised materials are prepared at the factory, a large crane is needed to lift them, but if the material is in the cheese, liquid form, it does not require much gear to raise it somewhere, because the robot can climb the pipe or some other way. Therefore, I think robots will be small, which greatly reduces their cost and most importantly, they will be different. It will be like a family, each robot will perform its function, and they will work together. The best example of this is ants, because ants build their home and they help each other when one is carrying something that is too heavy for him.

We will have a permanent BIM (Building Information Model) of what is happening. Due to the fact that the building is being built by robots, the configuration of the building will be very accurately known. There will always be a very accurate model of the city, but now we are passing to another topic, the topic of data.

Visualization by Petr Novikov

And what about the economical aspect? Will building construction be cheaper with robots?

Nowadays, robots are not yet the product one could construct a building with. It still needs quite a long and expensive development, and changes are quite expensive. But as soon as some of the barriers are overcome, there will definitely be a much cheaper construction process, because robots can work 24 hours a day; robots do not need a salary, and the construction process will be much more efficient. Another economic aspect is that huge numbers of people will lose their jobs. I think this is a very important question, which relates to public administration. Governments should predict which professions will disappear and start reclassifying people at an early stage.

…soon, changing a house will be as easy as changing furniture

Another thing I forgot to mention is that robots are very important for construction because, of course, the speed of construction will increase. Today you need to wait 20 days for concrete to see so you can then build the next storey; with the new technologies the speed of construction and speed of demolition will increase dramatically. Thus, constructing a building will no longer take a year, but will take a month, and so the city can change at a significantly faster rate. And there is an interesting point that if you’re out of town and come back to it after five years, you won’t recognise it, because everything will have changed. I think it’s an interesting topic that, soon, to changing your house will be as easy as changing the furniture.