Emerging Objects has big, bold plans for 3D-printed rooms

I sat on a 3D-printed bench.

"Durability" and "strength" are about the last words I would ever associate with 3D printing. But I'm not talking about the small, plastic trinkets you would print out with your MakerBot. This is Emerging Objects, a small fabrication studio in Oakland, CA that’s researching how to 3D-print using materials like wood, ceramic, newspaper, concrete, and salt.

Some 3D-printed art pieces made from newspaper, salt, and maple wood.

“Everyone is focusing on machines, and we’re interested in what machines can make,” Emerging Objects co-founder Ronald Rael explained to TechHive. “We saw a limitation in what a machine can make because of the medium, and so we wondered if we could reformulate that media to suit our own architectural agendas to print big.”

The Seat Slug bench is just one of Emerging Objects’ 3D-printed architecture projects. The long, snaking bench measures about 11 feet long, and it looks and feels more like polished stone than anything that came out of a machine. It’s a hollow structure made up of 230 thick concrete slabs—each one is a bit larger than your hand—that are fastened together using nuts and bolts.

The Seat Slug is a 3D-printed bench that looks a little like a common garden pest.

After presenting the bench—one of the company's most impressive projects—Rael stepped over to a desk and showed me a small concrete tile. This was Emerging Objects' very first 3D-printed object.

“We said, ‘hey, this thing is [as] strong as cement,’ and if we can do that, can we print a wall?” Rael—who also works as an associate professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley—reminisced as he tapped his knuckle against the tile.

In just two years, Emerging Objects has come a long way from its first 3D-printed tile. The small firm originally started off as just another project at Rael San Fratello, an architectural studio run by Rael and his partner Virginia San Fratello, who is a professor of interior design at San José State University. The company has remained small, though—it has only five employees.

“We primarily focused on experimental, culturally related architecture, and to us this was no different,” Rael recalled. “We were thinking about the culture of 3D printing as an emergent technology in architecture. Now we want to see how we can combine our architectural and 3D printing expertise.”

Emerging Objects’ very first 3D-printed concrete tile.

Rael added: “We were so enamored with 3D printing, [but] you could only make these little models and kits. We said to ourselves, it seems like this really has a lot of potential to be much more than what people are doing with it.”

Since then, Rael and his team have moved on to creating larger-scale designs. Emerging Objects' first 3D-printed tile led the team to build a small, round, almost chain-like structure called the Pantheon, which allowed them to think about hardware connections.

One of the early trial projects that helped Rael and San Fratello figure out how to connect their 3D-printed parts and make them into larger objects.

Compared to other construction techniques, objects made from multiple 3D-printed parts can be cumbersome to assemble. Rael told me that projects like the Pantheon have allowed Emerging Objects to experiment with everything from quick connections (like binder clips) to structural adhesives to interlocking connections (like tongue-and-grooved wood panels).

Once Rael and San Fratello had a better grasp of how to build and assemble 3D-printed structures, they moved on to larger projects like the Seat Slug. Emerging Objects used thick slabs to build its bench, but it's now looking into ways to print objects that are sturdy yet thin.

Ronald Rael and the salt wall.

The company's latest star project is an impressive curved wall that stands about three feet tall. It’s constructed out of centimeter-thin 3D-printed salt tiles that get their strength from their multi-angular structure: The thinner tiles will allow Emerging Objects to produce many more parts in a short amount of time than it otherwise could. The wall you see is just a representation of what Emerging Objects can build in a week with a couple of machines.

Still in the midst of construction, the planned salt wall will be three times taller when it’s finally complete.

Rael's Z-corp powder-based 3D printer stands about waist-high, and at first glance it looks more like a photocopier than a 3D printer. This machine basically functions like a 3D inkjet that adds a liquid binding solution to bond layers of powdered building material into solid objects. In the most literal sense, this is true 3D printing.

Emerging Objects has multiple wood-based materials this one is made from Pecan wood.

According to Rael, powder-based 3D printing was one of the very first 3D printing technologies to come into being. It hasn't really caught on, however, because the machines are so much more expensive than other types of 3D printers. On the other hand, the fused deposition modeling (FDM) method, which lays down thin layers of hot extruded plastic to create objects, has become popular among makers thanks to its accessibility and relative affordability.

All that said, Rael still sees a promising future for powder-based 3D printing.

“We have a [powder] printing technology that I think is very open-ended in terms of the kind of materials that can be in it. Then we have [a FDM] one that’s very closed and that’s the much more popular version,” he explained. “While I like those kinds of printers, [...] I think the big future is in store for powder printing.”

An untreated cement maze block sits next to an identical one made with salt.

Rael said that his company's building materials will work with any powder-based 3D printer, and that Emerging Objects is still researching new printing mediums and developing its business model.

As for the building materials themselves, Emerging Objects makes them all in-house, and uses locally sourced raw materials. The salt prints use raw materials harvested from the south end of the San Francisco Bay. Meanwhile, the wood material is produced from simple sawdust ground from wood pulp. Emerging Objects constantly looks to add more renewable, organic materials to its repertoire.

“My partner went down to get some salt today from the South Bay,” Rael explained. “Out there are these huge colorful ponds; there are reds, blues, and greens. That’s where the salt is being evaporated and to create the salt, so we can get that crystalline salt and bring it up.”

3D-printed jewelry.

But the company isn't all about big architectural projects: Rael also walked me over to a table of smaller scale prints, including jewelry that’s been sold through the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among other places.

“When we experiment with various forms, we then say ‘those are beautiful, maybe those are ways of thinking about making building components or buildings,'” Rael quipped. “Then we lock them into a piece of jewelry and suddenly that test for something that could be a wall becomes something you can wear.”

After exploring Emerging Objects’ history of 3D-printed objects sprawled across a sun-drenched boardroom table, Rael led me to an extremely crowded shelf. This rack held more trial samples, including various egg-carton-shaped test prints that looked like models of ultra-modern concert halls.

A 3D-printed ceramic dish fired with an orange glaze.
Emerging Objects’ cement-based creations can be both exquisite and durable.

From this shelf, Rael also picked out an intricately netted dish made of the same concrete material as the Seat Slug. As he described it to me, I remarked on how he was casually flicking it—something I’d never ever imagine doing to a delicate plastic 3D print.

After a bit of shared laughter, Rael explained that the materials Emerging Objects uses are much stronger than what your typical consumer-grade 3D printer spits out, as he pointed out three fiber-reinforced cement cylinders that can withstand up to 4500 pounds of pressure. To create this fiber-reinforcement, designers embed fibers in the concrete to form a mesh framework. The material later "polymerizes" (chemically solidifies) to make the object incredibly strong.

A building diorama shows off the possibilities of combing salt, cement, and maple wood structures.

Aside from developing new 3D-printable materials, one of Emerging Objects' goals is to use its design process to create “21st-century building tiles” that could help absorb sound, insulate a building, aid in water collection, or allow for integrated sensors.

Just as you can design the outside of a 3D-printed object, you can also create an internal structure with certain built-in characteristics. This method of construction is unique to 3D printing in that you are essentially creating a print from the ground up. You couldn’t do the same thing with a piece of lumber or by baking 1000 bricks using the same mold. With 3D printing, each component can have its own shape, its own special features.

Another 3D printed concrete structure made with much thinner panels than the Seat Slug.

But Emerging Objects doesn't want to stop there. By the end of the year, it hopes to fabricate a 3D-printed room or building-sized cement structure, such as a building's skin, wall, roof, or enclosure, that will answer very basic architectural questions and demonstrate the feasibility of a 3D-printed house. Emerging Objects also has plans to partner with a large-scale FDM company to create a very big architectural project.

“Ultimately, in every case we want to always build something that’s larger than the machine,” Rael explained. “We’re hoping to partner with some major machine manufacturers for 3D printing and also some companies that are interested in seeing this technology develop and grow.”

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