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3D printing a bathroom unit in a day

23 May 2019

Researchers from NTU Singapore developed the capability to 3D print an unfurnished bathroom in less than a day.

Image courtesy of NTU Singapore/YouTube)

After printing, the bathroom is furnished with toilet fittings to become a pre-fabricated unit, ready for use in construction projects. Its interior includes a sink, mirror, shower, toilet bowl, ceramic tiled walls and flooring, complete with concealed drains and piping. 

This could potentially help firms build prefabricated bathroom units (PBU) about 30 percent more quickly and 30 percent lighter than current PBUs.

In the past four years, the research team focused on developing a special concrete mix which is fluid enough to flow through the hoses and print nozzle yet can harden fast enough so that the next layer is able to be printed on it. On top of ensuring a consistent print quality, the final product also must be as strong as conventional concrete. 

The printing process takes half the time needed in the construction of a conventional bathroom unit that uses concrete casting. The fittings, tiling and finishing will typically take another five days.

This innovation was developed by a joint research team led by Assoc Prof Tan Ming Jen from NTU’s Singapore Centre for 3D printing, in partnership with Sembcorp Design and Construction, and Sembcorp Architects & Engineers.

Since 2014, it has been a requirement for all non-landed residential Government Land Sale (GLS) sites in Singapore to use Prefabricated Bathroom Units (PBU) in their construction process. 

PBUs are usually cast from concrete and completely preassembled offsite with all necessary finishes and fittings, ready to be lifted and installed in a building project. 

By shifting most of the fabrication off-site to the controlled environment of a factory, PBUs yield time and manpower savings of about 60 percent, compared to onsite construction which was the practice prior to 2014. There is also better control over the materials and the prefabrication process, resulting in higher quality finishes and lesser wastage.

Assoc Prof Tan said 3D printing a bathroom unit could help manufacturers halve their production time while lowering transport costs, carbon emissions and materials wastage. Less space is required to create and store the same number of PBUs in land- scarce Singapore, since conventional PBUs take about two weeks before they can be ready.

“By being able to print-on-demand, companies can save on their inventory costs as well as manpower costs, as they don’t have to hold as much stock and their workers can be redeployed to do higher-level tasks. This approach improves the safety of the workplace, since robots are doing the construction of the bathroom unit,” Prof Tan explained. 

Er Lie Liong Tjen, team lead from Sembcorp Design and Construction, and Sembcorp Architects & Engineers said: “3D printing technology allows concrete to be printed and customised. The complicated shape of a PBU and its walls can be developed and printed at a faster pace to satisfy the needs of individual customers as no formwork or moulds are required, whereas conventional construction of PBUs with concrete or lightweight wall panels always limit the possibilities of design. In addition, 3D printing can build curvilinear profiles rather than rectilinear forms.”

How the bathroom unit is 3D printed

The multidisciplinary team comprising researchers across disciplines such as mechanical, civil and material engineering, architecture and robotics, had to first develop special concrete mixtures that could be 3D printed. New mixtures include green building materials such as geopolymers, which are made from fly ash waste.

To enable printing, the team also had to develop new printing and control systems which could match the flow rate of the nozzle to the hardening properties of the concrete.

The printing was then carried out in a single build using a 6-axis KUKA Robotic arm, which has a reach of about 6 metres in diameter. The specially designed concrete mixture was fed to mixers and pumped out of a nozzle mounted on the robotic arm, depositing the material layer by layer according to the digital blueprint.

To save material and achieve weight savings of up to 30 percent, the walls of the PBU were printed in a W-lattice shape, which lent additional strength to the final structure. 

The research team printed and outfitted two PBUs. One measuring 1.62m (L) x 1.5m (W) x 2.8m (H) was printed in just 9 hours while the second PBU measuring 2m (L) x 2.6m (W) x 2.8m (H) was printed in 12 hours.

Throughout the whole process, NTU researchers worked closely with Sembcorp’s engineers, who gave industrial inputs and commented on research findings, as well as provided resources and materials for the 3D printing. They also installed architectural finishes and plumbing fixtures on the two printed PBUs and aided in the overall logistics.

Meets or exceeds industry standards

The larger 3D printed PBU has already undergone stringent industry tests, with the results showing that it has met the required strength and robustness as spelt out in Singapore Standard SS492: 2001. 

It is currently undergoing water absorption and fire resistance tests as part of the requirements under the Building Innovation Panel (BIP) PBU acceptance framework. 

The BIP is an inter-agency platform which accelerates the development and implementation of feasible methods, processes, solutions, technologies or materials – to cover solutions beyond those that raise productivity to any type of innovation that can improve Singapore’s Built Environment. 

The technology and know-how employed in this multi-disciplinary project is protected by a Technology Disclosure filed through NTU’s innovation and enterprise company, NTUitive, and is jointly owned between the university and Sembcorp.

Moving forward, the team is looking forward to getting the required approvals for trials from the Building and Construction Authority of Singapore (BCA) and to commercialise the technology through licensing or a spin-off company. 


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