Inspired by a robot bricklayer he saw 12 years ago, Christian Lange went on to become the senior lecturer at a robotics laboratory at the University of Hong Kong, where he created a robot that makes 3D-printed bricks.
These bricks could be used to cool off the city, which has been described as addicted to air conditioning. The machine is capable of printing perforated bricks that could be combined with a flowing water system to create a natural cooling effect that is environmentally sound.
The facility, called the Fabrication and Material Technologies Lab, opened in October, 2016. Due to the large role ceramics have played in Chinese culture, Lange, who is the head of the university’s robotics team, specified that the first item of equipment should be a 3D printer that prints clay.
“Ceramic bricks and tiles have been an important building material in Hong Kong and mainland China, but in today’s world, their role has been diminished to small surface detail on a concrete tower,” says Lange.
His project revived the “rich history: of Chinese brick making, but with a modern twist: the bricks his robots make would change design and construction. While conventional bricks are an excellent material system from which a wide number of architectural designs can be realized, they have numerous limitations.
Typical bricks can be found all over the world, but to produce the complex terracotta structures such as the Iron Pagoda in Kaifeng, a city in Henan province, central China, special bricks are required. The pagoda, which is framed by timber, dates from the 11th century and is one of the biggest and oldest buildings made using glazed bricks and tiles.
“This new technology, being able to print your own material, offers to the architect a whole new world of how to express your building,” he says.
HKU’s tech is made up of an industrial-size 3D printer, a software program to design the bricks, and a robotic arm that handles the manufacturing process.
Pliable clay is fed into the printer, then a preset algorithm is used to extrude bricks in a zig-zagging motion from the nozzle, just like a traditional printer spits out paper documents from a digital file. These bricks must then be fired in a kiln.
Each brick takes about three minutes to print and can be customized with tapering, curving, perforation, angulation, and endless other styles. The first fruits of this new method was a Brutalist-inspired twisting tower about 3.8-metre-tall building, believed to be the first of its kind on the planet.