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Digital technology has revolutionized the architectural and engineering industry over the past few decades with additive manufacturing playing an increasingly important role in the fabrication process. This process now also offers extended possibilities in the construction of custom-building components, enabling entire buildings to be 3D printed in the future.

Foster + Partners, an award-winning British international architectural design and engineering firm, has developed a 3D printed part at scale using hybrid manufacturing technology, and generative design, reducing manufacturing time and cost by 20%.       

Image courtesy of Foster + Partners

Steel truss showcases potential technology for future buildings

A world-first, Foster + Partners have designed and manufactured a steel building truss at scale using hybrid manufacturing and generative design technology.    

The project was a vital proof of concept for the Large-scale Additive Subtractive Integrated Modular Machine (LASIMM), a massive hybrid-manufacturing machine with metal additive and subtractive capabilities for printing parts up to 5-meters-long (16.4-foot-long).

Foster + Partners’ teamed up with aerospace firm BAE Systems and Danish wind-turbine manufacturer Vestas Wind Systems A/S to fabricate demonstrator products. The objective was to produce a structural-steel cantilevered truss that would showcase the potential of the technology for integration into a future building.

Image courtesy of Foster + Partners

Pushing the boundaries of custom fabrication

In 2016, as part of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, a consortium of corporations, universities, and technology organizations built and tested LASIMM – a world-first for 3D printing in metal.

Foster + Partners’ role within the consortium was to demonstrate the potential of the technology within the design and construction sector and explore new methods of fabrication that would benefit the architectural supply chain while offering a modern and sustainable approach. Best of all, LASIMM builds parts on-demand and into a near-net-shape, reducing material waste, and reforming inventory for highly complex projects.  

“The aim of the consortium is to make fundamental steps towards transforming the construction industry by developing new technologies,” says Sam Wilkinson, a design engineer in the firm’s Specialist Modelling Group.

LASIMM was developed to reduce costs, increase efficiency, and offer production flexibility, which are Europe’s core pillars to improve industrial competitiveness. LASIMM features a modular configuration including industrial 6-axis robot arms and a parallel kinematic motion (PKM) robot specialized for milling. It’s capable of additive manufacturing (wire + arc), machining (“subtractive” work), metrology, and inspection.  

“Foster + Partners has a history of investing in research to advance the science behind the material we use in our buildings, to understand the purest requirements for the spatial or performance characteristics of the design,” says Josh Mason, a design engineer in the Specialist Modelling Group.

Transforming construction with generative design

Taking inspiration from Maggie’s and Cross Rail, the team at Foster + Partners experimented with generative design technology to optimize the design prior to 3D printing the building truss and tested different-size builds (5 meters, 2 meters, and options in between), which showed potential uses for different scales. The generative design workflow adapted its designs to different shapes and dimensions.

The building truss was a successful proof-of-concept, bringing into focus the challenges and opportunities for the construction sector. The medium-term objective for Foster + Partners is to apply LASIMM to an actual commercial project. Applying new technologies across the industry is essential for transforming the construction industry by building meaningful, functional, and sustainable architecture.

"Typically, we’re given I-beams or plates, and it’s a big effort to fabricate or cut them and weld them back together. If we could 3D-print them and control the geometry, we could integrate lighting, ducts, airflow, heat transmission, and acoustics directly into the structure of the part."

Josh Mason, Design Engineer, Specialist Modeling Group, Foster + Partners