Some things are easier to 3-D print than others. We know, for example, that we can 3-D print pierogi molds no problem. But engineers have been trying to crack the 3-D printed house for quite some time, and they’ve come up with several different ways (varying in their pragmatism) to do it.
One of the latest inventions is the PolyBrick, which comes by way of Cornell University professor Jenny Sabin’s design lab. Sabin and her team were able to develop mortarless, 3-D printed bricks designed to function like cells encoded with DNA. A series of algorithms programs the bricks’ shapes and placement throughout the entire structure.
These bricks are cool for a few reasons. First, because the PolyBricks use dovetail joints to fit the bricks tightly together without mortar, their structures produce far less waste than conventional building. Second, unlike 3-D printed building projects that extrude layers to gain height (think of icing a cake, but icing layers of building material instead), the PolyBricks can be placed in arches to create domes. Third, the bricks are drunk.
Okay, so they’re not exactly drunk. But the bricks do contain alcohol and sugar as binders before they’re glazed and fired.
Michael Martin Miller, a visiting critic and PolyBrick researcher, says the team has experimented with everything from isopropyl alcohol (the stuff you put on cuts) to cheap, bottom-shelf vodka.
“Part of the challenge for us is to find a low-cost means of 3-D printing mass customization of these objects at a scale that’s occupiable,” Miller says. “For us, the ceramic, the maltodextrin, and vodka—or alcohol, each brick ends up costing under $4 or something. It’s a very cheap process.”
In addition to alcohol, software also plays a huge role. The PolyBrick runs on three main algorithms: one that creates the geometry of the bricks, another that labels them, and a third that determines how they’ll morph and orient themselves in the structure. Miller says that the PolyBrick team was inspired by cellular networks of units that have the same basic geometry, but adapt and change shape to fit their neighbors and the total design.
Even though the algorithms do much of the work, making sure the bricks stay in their shapes after they’re printed can be a bit of a struggle. Once the bricks are taken out of the print bed, they remain soft and can warp easily until they’re fired.
“Some people are better at [handling the bricks] than others,” Miller says. “I’m not one of them.”
The PolyBrick hasn’t been used in any large-scale structures yet, but we could see a demonstration as early as this fall.