Aug 29, 2018 | By Thomas

3D printers are great at creating objects that are small enough to fit within their printer tray. However, if someone wants to create a large-scale object, they are either forced to find a printer large enough to accommodate the job, or to print it in pieces that can be assembled later. To tackle this problem, a team of researchers from the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore removed the size restrictions of a printer altogether by using robotic arms on mobile platforms to print directly on site.

Photo: Nanyang Technological University

As a proof of concept the team has created a prototype that can print “a single-piece concrete structure [using] two mobile robots operating concurrently.” The big advantage to this method of 3D printing is that the system is freed of the special constraints of a more traditional 3D printer by the robotic arm out front. The robots can move around and define their own build volume. While the height of the printed objects is still limited by the reach of the robotic arms, they still have way more flexibility than other systems when it comes to length and width. However, this also could be overcome with bots of an industrial scale, and in fact, the team is already thinking about extending the reach of the robots arms by putting them on scissor lifts.

Another advantage is that they can be very efficient, since you can just use more robots for bigger print jobs, with each one tackling a different piece at the same time. "Besides improving the overall speed of the print, having multiple robots also means that you can make stronger, more complex structures since you don’t run into the problem of trying to bond wet concrete to dry concrete where two parts intersect,” explained the researchers.

Photo: Nanyang Technological University

The video below is the a very early proof of concept. This particular structure has a build volume of 186 x 46 x 13 cm and took just 7 minutes 50 seconds to complete. In the video the two robots are being guided by an camera array, but they don't move around while printing. Cuong Pham from NTU said that was a limitation of their systhem and they are still trying to solve. "Getting the robots to print while moving requires even higher precision in the localization of the base — around 1 millimeter — to ensure that the layers are appropriately positioned one above the other,” said Pham. They will also be thinking about adding on-board obstacle (and human) detection to improve the robots’ autonomy.

There will be plenty of useful applications for such a robotic swarm of 3D printers, But the researchers imagine their devices being used in construction, especially in remote or dangerous areas. "Using a fleet of mobile robots for construction could have an extreme potential in other non-conventional aspects," they wrote. "One such application is to allow automated construction in hard-to-reach, remote areas, such as underground caves, the Moon or Mars, to which it is inconvenient or even impossible to bring other kinds of machine required for existing cementitious material printing methods."

Their research was published a paper, titled “Large-scale 3D Printing by a Team of Mobile Robots” in the journal Automation in Construction.



Posted in 3D Printer

Source: IEEE Spectrum


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