Researchers at Cambridge, a public collegiate research university in Cambridge, England, developed the first ever 3D printed smart wall for a National Highways project. The novel construction, called a headwall, with sensors designed by Cambridge University has been put on the A30 in Cornwall. These sensors report temperature, strain, and pressure in real time, allowing for early defect diagnosis. 3D printing technology allowed the team to build a curved smart wall without resorting to costly and wasteful formwork or carbon-emitting steel reinforcing.
Cambridge Department of Engineering professor Abir Al-Tabbaa’s group has been at the forefront of creating cutting-edge sensor technologies and investigating the possibilities of self-healing smart wall over the past six years. The 3D printed headwall of the A30 has been successfully implemented thanks to their knowledge and cooperation with industry partners. The groundbreaking nature of this project highlights the vast potential of additive manufacturing in the building sector.
Description of the smart wall
The concrete wall, measuring around two metres in height and three and a half metres in breadth, was produced at the offices of Versarien, an advanced engineering business in Gloucestershire, using a robot arm-based concrete printer. This state-of-the-art printing approach not only saved money and resources, but also drastically cut down on carbon emissions in comparison to conventional building methods. Without the need of traditional formwork or steel reinforcement, the wall’s unique geometry ensures the wall’s stability in its curved hollow shape.
Researchers from Cambridge installed a variety of sensors into the concrete to monitor the 3D printed wall’s structural integrity and performance. Indicators such as temperature, humidity, pressure, strain, electrical resistance, and electrochemical potential are tracked by these sensors. These sensors can monitor conditions in real time, allowing for the prompt diagnosis and repair of any problems that may arise.
The team used LiDAR scanning throughout the printing process to generate a precise digital twin of the smart wall, complementing the sensor technologies. An improved capacity for analysis and decision-making is made possible by this digital depiction of the structure’s behaviour. The incorporation of high-tech sensors and a digital twin improves the wall’s capacity for self-communication and speeds up the industry’s transition to 3D printed buildings.
Making the wall digital means it can speak for itself,” Professor Abir Al-Tabbaa said, emphasising the project’s significance. And with the help of our sensors, we may get a deeper appreciation for these 3D printed buildings and hasten their widespread adoption. A30’s 3D-printed smart wall, if installed successfully, would act as a living laboratory, producing useful data throughout the course of its lifetime. This information will help shed light on the feasibility of using 3D printing to produce cement-based components of greater size and complexity for the key road network.
Both the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the European Union are providing financial assistance to the project so that it may be carried out as a component of the Resilient Materials for Life Programme and the Digital Roads of the Future Initiative.
Not only have researchers from Cambridge proved that it is possible to build concrete smart wall using a 3D printer, but they have also set the path for future developments in additive manufacturing techniques that may be used in the construction sector. The effective incorporation of intelligent sensors and digital twins into 3D-printed structures offers enormous promise for improving the operational efficacy, structural integrity, and environmental friendliness of future infrastructure development projects.
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