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Construction Corner: 3-D device unveiled that can print an entire building

Korky Koroluk
Construction Corner: 3-D device unveiled that can print an entire building

Things are happening so fast in the field of robotics that it’s hard to keep up to date.

The same can be said for additive manufacturing, commonly called 3-D printing.

There’s even a new scholarly journal called Science Robotics, which I believe is still sorting out what its publishing schedule should be. At the moment, it seems to publish when it has enough news to fill an issue.

At the rate robotics is moving, I wouldn’t be surprised if they soon began to publish every couple of weeks.

Last week, the new journal gave us news of a robotic 3-D device that can print an entire building. It caught the attention of the trade press, of course. But even some mainstream media outlets found space for an article about it.

The report, by Steven Keating, Julian Leland, Levi Cai and Neri Oxman, of MIT, presented a device the team calls a Digital Construction Platform (DCP). That means it’s an automated system capable of combining many steps into a single production process, adapting design and construction processes on the fly.

The system is made up of a tracked vehicle that carries a large, industrial robotic arm, which has a smaller robotic arm at its end. Sort of like having two elbows so it can reach all sorts of small spaces. That smaller arm can be fitted with a variety of nozzles or tools, depending on the task at hand.

What might make this system a game changer is that it’s mobile.

Typical 3-D printing systems use some kind of enclosed, fixed structure to support their nozzles and are limited to building objects that can fit within the enclosure. But the machine unveiled recently has the reach and agility to construct an object of any size.

To prove the concept, the researchers used a prototype of their device to fabricate the foam-insulation framework for a dome that was 15.24 metres in diameter and 3.66 metres tall. The job was done in about 14 hours.

The insulated concrete formwork technique is in fairly wide use, which is why it was chosen. The team wanted to show that the system can be easily adapted to existing building sites and equipment and that it can build code-compliant structures.

The system can be powered by solar panels. That means it could be deployed to remote regions or to disaster sites when quick, durable shelters are needed.

As for the prototype dome, the insulating foam shell would be left in place after the concrete is poured. Both interior and exterior finishes could be applied directly to that foam surface.

The system can even create complex shapes and overhangs. The team demonstrated this by including a wide, built-in bench in the dome. Any needed wiring and plumbing can be inserted into the mould before the concrete is poured. Data collection can be built in by embedding sensors as the structure is built.

Keating says using the platform could produce a structure faster and cheaper than present methods can. The shapes and thicknesses can be optimized for what is needed structurally, rather than having to match what’s available in premade lumber and other materials. That means the amount of material needed could be reduced.

The digital platform represents an engineering advance.

But Neri Oxman, a member of the research team, says 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 made of standardized parts as a machine to live in to "the building as an organism, which is computationally grown, additively manufactured and possibly biologically augmented."

The digital era we’ve embarked upon is really just beginning. It will be fascinating to watch as this machine and other digital equipment we haven’t yet imagined makes its way to the marketplace.

Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to

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