Apr 27, 2017 | By Benedict

A group of researchers at MIT that includes members of Neri Oxman’s Mediated Matter Group has developed a robotic system for 3D printing buildings and other large structures. The system’s robotic arm can 3D print polyurethane foam molds which can then be filled with concrete.

A lot of companies today, wanting to be seen as the first, the fastest, or the biggest, say they can 3D print buildings. And that’s great: 3D printed houses and construction projects are one of the most exciting applications of additive manufacturing—that’s why we’re so keen to cover stories about 3D printed buildings, concrete-extruding 3D printers, and everything in between.

The problem is, with construction additive manufacturing being a relatively recent phenomenon, it’s often hard to tell who is the real deal. Did you really 3D print a building? And if so, can I actually walk around in it? Was it an efficient process, or did it cost you thousands of dollars to transport the 3D printed parts to a building site? These are all important questions to ask, and a surprising number of companies might not be able to answer them positively.

This is why it’s especially exciting when you hear of some “3D printed building” project that involves names like MIT—one of the best universities in the world—and Neri Oxman, a multidisciplinary 3D printing expert and one of the most important women in 3D printing.

Oxman, along with a number of other researchers from MIT, has recently developed a tracked vehicle equipped with a huge industrial robotic arm that could represent the future of construction 3D printing.

The vehicle’s large arm has another precision-motion robotic arm at its end that can be fitted with different kinds of extrusion nozzles. And since the extruder can be moved around freely by the two robotic arms, the build volume of the system is much larger than any self-enclosed 3D printer.

The system is described in Science Robotics in a paper authored by Steven Keating, Julian Leland, Levi Cai, and Oxman—all past or present members of Oxman’s Mediated Matter research group.

To demonstrate the function of the impressive new 3D printing system, the researchers used a prototype version to build the walls of a 50-foot-diameter, 12-foot-high dome, the largest building ever 3D printed by a mobile robot. Amazingly, this structure was erected with less than 14 hours printing time.

Rather than extrude concrete, the MIT researchers’ articulated 3D printer was actually used to fabricate polyurethane foam molds, which were then filled with concrete. This method is similar to normal insulated-concrete formwork techniques, though the mold printing process could potentially allow construction companies to create buildings in new and unusual ways.

One of the most exciting parts of the 3D printing system, however, has nothing to do with what you can actually build with it. Being equipped with a “scoop” that could be used to prepare a building surface or obtain local materials, the 3D printing system is designed to be totally self-sufficient. This means that the system could potentially fabricate buildings completely unmanned.

Keating, a mechanical engineering graduate and former research affiliate in the Mediated Matter group, says that the group’s goal is “in the future, to have something totally autonomous, that you could send to the moon or Mars or Antarctica, and it would just go out and make these buildings for years.” The printer could also be used in remote areas and in the developing world to provide disaster relief in the form of 3D printed shelters.

That’s the long-term plan, but the researchers say that the robotic construction 3D printing system could also be used right away on building sites. “We can replace one of the key parts of making a building right now,” Keating said.

According to the MIT experts, their 3D printing system has a few more tricks up its sleeve that could be used to make the process of fabricating buildings as efficient as possible. The researchers have developed something they call a Digital Construction Platform (DCP), a system for identifying the particular requirements of a structure depending on its location, orientation, and ultimate purpose.

This system would allow construction companies to tailor a building’s design based on certain important factors. For example, the system could be used to create a building whose walls are thinner at the top than the bottom, depending on its load-bearing requirements. Buildings could also have thicker walls on the side most likely to face cold winds.

Oxman, who has very high hopes for the future of 3D printing, says that the 3D printing construction project “challenges traditional building typologies such as walls, floors, or windows, and proposes that a single system could be fabricated using the DCP that can vary its properties continuously to create wall-like elements that continuously fuse into windows.”

Although the 3D printing system has been tested with foam material, varying its nozzles could allow users to print entirely different substances, or even mix different materials together while printing. Because of this, a single machine could be used to fabricate both the internal and external parts of a building. Wiring and plumping can even be incorporated into the structure as it is being printed, while the printer is also capable of printing complex shapes and overhangs.

The MIT researchers say their new technique could be used to fabricate buildings faster and less expensively than current methods are able to, while it could also be much safer. This, however, is only part of the advantage of the new technology.

“Making it faster, better, and cheaper is one thing,” Oxman said. “But the ability to design and digitally fabricate multifunctional structures in a single build embodies a shift from the machine age to the biological age—from considering the building as a machine to live in, made of standardized parts, to the building as an organism, which is computationally grown, additively manufactured, and possibly biologically augmented.

“Our system points to a future vision of digital construction that enables new possibilities on our planet and beyond.”



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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