A wall capable of communication is 3D printed by researchers from Cambridge.

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Cambridge Innovates Infrastructure with 3D-Printed Concrete Wall

Cambridge, known for its prestigious university and rich history, is now making waves in the world of construction and engineering. Researchers at Cambridge have harnessed the power of 3D printing to create a concrete wall that not only enhances infrastructure but also promotes sustainability and safety. This groundbreaking collaboration between the Cambridge team and industry stakeholders has resulted in the development of a headwall – a retaining wall with embedded sensors that provide real-time data.

With the help of these sensors, the wall can monitor factors such as temperature, strain, and pressure. By analyzing this data, researchers can identify and rectify any defects or issues before they become major problems. Professor Abir Al-Tabbaa, from the Department of Engineering at Cambridge, explains, “Making the wall digital means it can speak for itself, and we can use our sensors to understand these 3D-printed structures better and accelerate their acceptance in the industry.”

The specially designed headwall has been installed along the A30 roadway in Cornwall, UK. Traditionally, constructing a precast concrete headwall required extensive formwork and steel reinforcement. However, utilizing 3D printing technology, the Cambridge team designed a hollow wall with no need for formwork or steel reinforcement. The wall’s strength is derived from its unique geometry, rather than relying on steel.

The 3D-printed wall stands approximately two meters high and three and a half meters wide, which took only one hour to print. The printing process took place in Gloucestershire, using a robot arm-based concrete printer. The use of 3D printing not only saves time and money but also reduces material waste and carbon emissions.

This project is the culmination of years of research and development by Professor Abir Al-Tabbaa’s team. They have been pioneers in developing sensor technologies and exploring the application of commercial sensors to gather high-quality information from infrastructure. For this project, they used sensors to monitor temperature fluctuations during the printing process, identifying potential hotspots or abnormalities. These sensors also measured relative humidity, pressure, strain, electrical resistivity, and electrochemical potential, providing valuable insights into the sensor’s performance and lifespan.

A LiDAR system was also employed to create a 3D point cloud and generate a digital twin of the wall as it was being printed. Additionally, the team created a Piezoceramic Lead-Zirconate-Titanate (PZT) sensor, capable of measuring electromechanical impedance response to detect any damage or changes over time. Eight PZT sensors were embedded within the layers of the wall during the printing process to capture loading and strain information.

To collect and analyze the data from the embedded sensors, the team developed a custom wireless data-gathering system. This system allowed them to remotely collect the multifrequency electromechanical response data from Cambridge. All this information, along with the digital twin, will enable infrastructure professionals to better understand how 3D printing can be utilized for larger and more complex cement-based materials in the future.

The collaboration between researchers, engineers, and data scientists in Cambridge showcases the immense potential of 3D printing in the construction industry. By leveraging technology and innovative sensor systems, we can create smarter, safer, and more sustainable infrastructure. As Professor Al-Tabbaa states, “The sensor data and ‘digital twin’ will help infrastructure professionals better understand how 3D printing can be used and tailored to print larger and more complex cement-based materials for the strategic road network.” The future of infrastructure is looking brighter and more efficient thanks to the brilliant minds at Cambridge and their groundbreaking 3D printing advancements.

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