Never short of an innovative idea or two, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a new robotic system capable of 3D printing an entire building.
The system involves a tracked vehicle that carries a giant robot arm with a smaller precision-motion arm at one end, able to extrude concrete or spray insulating material. It also has additional digital fabrication end effectors, such as a milling head.
“For this project, we designed a robotic system that’s mobile so that it can go on site, gather its own energy through photovoltaics, and gather its own material to carry out fabrication using local materials like compressed earth or even ice,” Steven Keating, a mechanical engineering graduate who worked on the project, told Digital Trends. “Most importantly, we wanted to make sure that this could integrate into a construction site tomorrow — and would have incredible benefits compared to regular construction techniques.”
These benefits are numerous. For one thing, it can produce structures faster and cheaper than traditional construction methods. It could also be used to make more customized creations, based both on the local materials available and environmental conditions.
“One of the things we’re most excited about is being able to gather environmental data and use this to design on the fly,” Keating said. “If you look at nature, each structure is adapted to its environment. In the future, we imagine that we could use sensors to determine things like ground condition and use all of this information to optimize a design — from thermal sensors to figure out where the floor insulation should go, to solar sensors to work out where the windows should be located.”
This construction process could lead to interesting unique structures, such as curved walls on a building to help it withstand strong winds or certain walls which more insulated than others according to outside temperatures.
Possible applications for the robot 3D printer could include anything from rapid construction of new houses in disaster areas to the promise of building in space at some point.
For now, though, you will have to be satisfied with a proof-of-concept build carried out by the researchers, in which they used the technology to 3D print the basic structure of a 50-foot-diameter, 12-foot-high dome. Total print time? Just 14 hours.
While that is certainly impressive, however, not every aspect of the 3D-printing work is easy.
“One challenge when you’re working on large-scale is that everything becomes a lot bigger in terms of effort,” Keating concluded. “If you want to do a quick test print with a small 3D printer, you can easily do 10 of them in a day. With this, even a single test is a big process. For example, the dome that we created is thousands of pounds of material. Just taking that down is an enormous challenge.”
Time for a deconstruction robot, perhaps?
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