SmartNodes is an RMIT University research project in collaboration with industry partner Arup. The research explores the potential for pairing unique, high-tech, weight optimal node components with off-the-shelf, standard beams and fixings to accomplish customised and complex building form. It addresses the challenge of designing and prototyping a lightweight canopy structure. The system is underpinned by a series of custom manufactured structural nodes, designed and optimised with digital algorithms and produced using the latest additive manufacturing technology. These link simple beams and planar panels. Through the customised geometry of each node, the system has the potential for a broad range of design outcomes without significant cost penalties. The project is an exemplar of trans-disciplinary research at RMIT University, a global university of technology and design. The project team is composed of experts from architecture, structural design and manufacturing.
While 3D printing technologies have been around since the 1980s, few applications can be seen in the construction industry. A number of barriers exist to the uptake of the technology, primarily the cost of production at the scale of buildings, combined with the uncertainty of material and process. SmartNodes tackles relatively small components which have implications for larger scales of building form and structural stability. It explores Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) and Selective Laser Melting (SLM) manufacturing of components. Customised parts are being produced and tested to verify material strength and tolerance.
In even relatively simple structures, connection nodes are often fabricated in short runs. This makes them ideal for considering additive manufacture. The geometry of these SmartNodes components is further customised through an optimisation process known as Bi-directional Evolutionary Structural Optimisation (BESO) developed at RMIT University. This technique seeks to find an optimised topology for a given structural loading to produce a unique shape with minimum volume.
The application of the SmartNodes system to architecture enables significant flexibility in the design of building form, without significant compromises to cost. As a prototype design, we have designed a simple shell shape. This is generated with a designer using an interactive parametric model and has resulted in 207 simple linear beams connecting a network of 144 nodes. The geometric complexities of the design are localised to the nodes making the assembly a relatively straightforward task of fixing flitch plates to nodes.