MIT built a robot that can 3D print a building

Their work promises to pave the way to more efficient building construction: the procedure is faster and less expensive. A building could also be fully customized to the requirements of a specific site and the desires of its architect. Even the internal structure could be modified in new ways; different materials could be incorporated as the process goes along, and material density could be varied to provide optimum combinations of strength, insulation, or other properties. The scientists, led by Steven Keating, boasts that this approach can do what traditional construction methods cannot.

The platform carries a large robotic arm, which has a smaller, more precise robotic arm at its tip. Instead of assembling its assigned printout in an enclosure, the MIT bot’s mechanical arm is fitted with nozzles that can spit out any number of substances used in building construction, such as concrete or insulation. While it’s now capable of building a simple, 50-foot diameter insulated concrete dome structure inside 14 hours, the team has some pretty unbelievable ideas for its future.

Similar to the commercial insulated concrete formwork techniques, the construction method used by the researchers filled the polyurethane foam molds with concrete.

Currently, the system requires human supervision to work properly.

Eventually, the system is projected to be self-sufficient. And like living things, it could potentially create building materials out of stuff in the local ecosystem: The authors showed that the robot was able to take scoops of dirt and turn the compressed earth into building material. The entire system could be operated electrically, even powered by solar panels. 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. “We also wanted to show that we could build something tomorrow that could be used right away“. That’s what the team did with its initial mobile platform. “We can replace one of the key parts of making a building right now”, Keating said.

“A lot of other research projects that are looking at digital construction often don’t create something of an architectural scale – and if they do, they’re not using a process that could be easily integrated into a construction site”, Keating said.

Now, the construction industry – a sector using many processes and techniques that are centuries old – is the latest sphere due to be disrupted and revolutionized by 3D printing. “The buildings are rectilinear, mostly built from single materials, put together with saws and nails“, and mostly built from standardized plans.

“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. Buildings could also have thicker walls on the side most likely to face cold winds.

The formation of this system, which the researchers refer to as a Digital Construction Platform (DCP), was motivated by the Mediated Matter group’s complete vision of designing buildings without parts.

Now, an MIT team has demonstrated its own prototype, a 3D printing robot that rolls around on tank-style tracks. Any desired wiring and plumbing can be inserted into the mold prior to the concrete being poured, providing a finished wall structure instantly.

Given the construction industry is still one of the most risky in the world in 2017, a system that requires little to no hands-on accompaniment or on-site input would be a most welcome addition.

This system would allow construction companies to tailor a building’s design based on certain important factors.

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

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