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Overview of the Fluid Forms structure in outdoors setting.

The capabilities of 3D printing keep growing. Over the past two decades, we’ve seen the technology used in everything from furniture and lighting to bridges and homes. The material palette has expanded with these applications: once only confined to plastics, we now have the possibility of printing concrete and metal.

When it comes to 3D printing, as with all of the processes it explores, ETH Zurich seeks to push the limits. How lightweight, complex and biophilic can we make architecture with the use of additive technologies? The renowned school boasts an entire research facility dedicated to testing out its paradigm-shifting ideas and prototypes.

An illustration of the vector fields that combine to make up the 40 modules.

A recent project, led by Ioanna Mitropoulou, a doctoral researcher in the Digital Building Technologies group at ETH Zurich, continues this discourse. Fluid Forms takes the shape – or shapes – of a translucent plastic sculpture, standing two metres tall. Its 40 components (printed separately and held together with screws) demonstrate the ability of robotic manufacturing to produce double-curved thin shells rather than planar modules. The result is a tangible illustration of Mitropoulou’s fascinating exploration of “nonplanar layered morphologies.”

Robotic 3D printing process of a piece. Photo by Ioanna Mitropoulou
One of the 40 unique pieces that comprise the Fluid Forms structure. Photo by Dominik Vogel

The team behind Fluid Forms stresses the efficiency of this new process, which uses non-planar print paths, “realized with the motion agility of robotic arms.” Inspired by the Costa minimal surface, the design features “a geometry with remarkable structural properties” that are realized with vector-field optimized print paths aligned to the directions of the sculpture’s main curves. According to the team, this reduces the need for sacrificial support (added structure that is then removed from the final project and discarded, a wasteful byproduct of making thin-shelled architecture) and enhances the precision and quality of high-curvature areas. The entire piece weighs 120 kilograms and is self-supporting.

Assembly process of the structure at the initial, intermediate and final stages. Photos (of all three) by Dominik Vogel

To increase the structure’s sturdiness, the team introduced undulations that are orthogonal to the print direction. “This innovative approach opens new horizons for constructing large-scale lightweight structures in architecture with unprecedented precision and material economy,” the researchers explain.

Overview of the Fluid Forms structure in its outdoor setting. Photo by Dominik Vogel.

By weaving together two hues of translucent materials – a colourless and a blue plastic thread that morph from vertical to horizontal striations – the project communicates its underlying geometry, “showing a hidden layer of information and creating a new realm of unseen aesthetics that celebrates the agility of robotic manufacturing.” Depending on how one approaches it, the installation looks by turns opaque and transparent, its geometries curving in on themselves in surprising ways. At once materially efficient and an aesthetic marvel, it appears like an uncanny object crafted from both human and robotic arms. Printed over three weeks – that’s 140 hours of active machine time – the entire piece can be disassembled and recycled.

ETH Zurich Uses 3D Printing to Create Ever-More Fluid Forms

With her project Fluid Forms, an ETH doctoral student tests the possibilities of super-thin and ultra-complex architectural shapes.

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