Dec.4, 2012

How can 3D printing technology be scaled to building-sized construction? Neri Oxman believes we will soon be able to 3D print buildings. She's experimenting at MIT's Media Lab a novel method of mobile swarm printing that allows small robotic agents to construct large structures.

The robotic agents extrude a fast curing material which doubles as both a concrete mold for structural walls and as a thermal insulation layer. This technique offers many benefits over traditional construction methods, such as speed, custom geometry, and cost. As well, direct integration of building utilities like wiring and plumbing can be incorporated into the printing process. Oxman hopes that the 3D printing process will eventually include wiring and plumbing.

At the Media Lab, nature's design principles has been applied in the design of digital fabrication technology. For example, Spiderbot project, is a large scale 3D printer designed by Ben Peters, a mechanical engineering student. The SpiderBot is a cable-suspended robotic gantry system that provides an easily deployable platform from which to print large structures.

The body composed of a deposition nozzle, a reservoir of material, and parallel winching electric motors. Cables from the robot are connected to stable points high in the environment, such as large trees or buildings. This actuation arrangement is capable of moving large distances without the need for more conventional linear guides, much like a spider does. The system is easy to set up for mobile projects, and will afford sufficient printing resolution and build volume. Fast-curing materials like expanding polyurethane foam can be deposited to create a building-scale printed object rapidly. Another material type of interest is the extrusion or spinning of tension elements, like rope or cable. With tension elements, unique structures such as bridges or webs can be wrapped, woven, or strung around environmental features or previously printed materials.

(An initial prototype of the spiderbot, four winching motors, batteries and wireless controller. Works! | Images credit: Spiderbot)

Oxman says it is the "largest 3D printer in the world". She believes in the near future we will be able to apply digital fabrication to construction with each material providing a different function, on any scale, at anywhere, on demand. It may be a little while before we see such 3D printing robots runing around in our neighborhood, but 3D printed houses are becoming a reality, and construction is likely to get a lot more interesting.



Posted in 3D Printing Technology


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