EERE Success Story—Making Precast Concrete Façades with 3D-Printed Molds

March 13, 2019

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Domino Sugar redevelopment
Installation of the building envelope at the Domino Sugar redevelopment. Photo courtesy of Mo Wright, Gate Precast Company.

On the shores of the East River in Brooklyn, New York, redevelopment of the former Domino Sugar Refinery included utilizing novel technology to manufacture precast concrete panels. With funding from DOE’s Building Technologies Office (BTO) and Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO), the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and Gate Precast Company used additive manufacturing, known more colloquially as 3D printing, to manufacture molds for precast concrete panels that cover the 42-story tower’s textured façade. The Domino Sugar Refinery is the first building in the United States to use 3D printed molds to cast concrete.

3D-printed molds offer several advantages over their conventional counterparts. Traditional precast molds made from wood and fiberglass are time-intensive and require extensive manual labor from skilled workers. “Typical molds [made from wood] take about three to four days to build,” explained Steve Schweitzer, Vice President of Operations at Gate Precast. “The 3D-printed molds cut that time in half without tying up our own people.”

3D printed molds buildings
One of the 3D-printed molds. Photo courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy.

Not only does 3D printing yield highly replicable and long-lasting parts, the process also generates less material waste, and the molds can be used upwards of 200 times, an order of magnitude more than traditional molds, which can typically only be used for about 15 to 20 concrete pours. This advantage reduces the marginal cost per piece for large, repetitious projects by distributing the mold’s total cost over many more concrete panels.

3D-printed molds give architects significantly more flexibility to incorporate innovative shapes into their designs, which is an opportunity to integrate more energy-efficient design strategies into their buildings. On the Domino building, 3D printing allowed architects to affordably produce differently shaped molds (and subsequent concrete panels) for each side of the building so that solar shading was optimized. But according to BTO’s lead building envelope expert Sven Mumme, the enhanced shading capacity of building envelopes is just “the tip of the iceberg” for what 3D printing could ultimately do to enhance the energy efficiency of tomorrow’s buildings. “Because 3D printing could allow a builder or an architect to incorporate a much wider range of materials into the envelope and layer them in sequences, you can really push the, well, envelope of a building’s thermal performance.”

Concrete panels with windows installed
Concrete panels with windows installed. Photo courtesy of Mo Wright, Gate Precast Company.

 “The use of 3D-printed molds for precast concrete is a significant game changer for the industry. In only a year and a half, these molds went from concept to commercialization,” said Roger Becker, Vice President of Technical Services at the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute. “We have barely scratched the surface for these 3D-printed molds in the construction industry.” Architects agree. “The use of 3D-printed molds will make precast construction more appealing to architects and designers as they will be able to explore new and more complex building designs,” explained Dr. Diana Hun, the project lead and subject matter expert for building envelopes at ORNL.

These advanced molds gave architects the design they wanted within the construction team timeframe. The Domino project’s accelerated timeline was made possible by the use of ORNL’s 3D-printed molds, which were manufactured using the Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM™) system. ORNL utilized BAAM™ to rapidly fabricate these large, complex molds with the necessary consistency and durability for this project. After the molds were printed, they were machined to their final dimensions with a computer numerical control router. Subsequently, the molds were shipped to the precast plant where (as is done traditionally) workers manufactured the concrete panels and installed the window glazing.

To learn more about the Domino project, Autodesk, Inc. has produced an informative video about the building and its use of precast concrete and 3D-printed molds.

concrete panel at the precast plant
Workers installing a window into the concrete panel at the precast plant. Photo courtesy of Mo Wright, Gate Precast Company.