Compared to other industries that have been transformed by technology, construction has been lagging behind, with builders relying on methods and materials that have been around for decades — or centuries, even. But that could change in a hurry, thanks to the advent of sophisticated robotics and 3-D printers that rapidly can fabricate objects layer by layer.
We're already seeing an increasing number of examples of builders using 3-D printing to make big pieces out of concrete and then assembling them to create structures. In 2016, for example, architecture firm Gensler partnered with engineering firms Syska Kennessy and Thornton Tomasetti to erect the world's first 3-D printed office building in Dubai, using components printed in Shanghai on Chinese company WinSun Global's massive building-sized 3-D printer. Madrid now has the world's first 3-D printed concrete footbridge, and a Dutch company plans to build a 3-D printed steel bridge in Amsterdam.
Now, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have come up with a 3-D printing technology that they say makes it possible to print not just big pieces, but the basic structure of an entire building.
The Digital Construction Platform (DCP), described in a new article in the journal Science Robotics, includes a vehicle on a track that carries a big robotic arm, with a smaller, more precise arm mounted on its end. The smaller arm can be used to direct different nozzles that apply various types of construction materials, such a concrete or insulation. In addition to guiding additive manufacturing, the arm also can guide cutting tools such as a milling head.
Unlike most 3-D printing systems, which are limited to building objects that can fit inside their enclosed structure, the DCP is free-moving. That means that, theoretically, there are no limits to how big of an object it can fabricate. The researchers already have used a prototype to fashion the framework for a dome measuring 12 feet (3.7 meters) tall and 50 feet (15.2 meters) in diameter. And it did the job in less than 14 hours.
In the future, such a 3D-printing construction system might be used to rapidly build shelters in extreme environments where construction is difficult — including, possibly, places on other worlds. As MIT researcher Steven Keating says in a press release, the ultimate goal is "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."