Will the future of construction include 3D-printing robots?


  • Autodesk and Dura Vermeer teamed up to develop a robot-filled shipping container to transport 3D printers to construction sites.
  • Beyond the ability to generate metal components, 3D printers have been used to extrude concrete as well as plastic.
  • Canada is looking toward 3D robotics that can be delivered via truck to help gain on the need for housing in some of the country’s most inhospitable and remote areas.

What would the neighbors think if they saw a trailer roll up to your construction site and offload twin Panasonic TS-950 robots? How about when the robots start 3D printing metal or concrete building components?

This sounds loads better than watching a rotating truck spew concrete mix everywhere.

A new dynamic duo

Autodesk and the Netherlands-based company Dura Vermeer have created a robot-filled shipping container to house 3D-printing robots and transport them directly to job sites, where they will print metal frame structures on site. It’s expected that each printer can create large, durable metal components for a construction project, rather than transport building systems made of truckloads of primary and secondary frame members plus all the panels and fasteners.

These robots may also be able to provide more design flexibility than a pre-manufactured building or than the essential components used for most construction. Advocates say that generative algorithms can be used to create pieces that are the exact specification required for any design.

According to Luke Dormehl of Digital Trends, 3D-printing robots can be compared to a “supply chain in a box.”

Why would we want to do this?

Consider that the earth has a growing population, a changing climate, and shortages of skilled labor and natural resources. That might make it hard to meet the demand for 13,000 new buildings a day for the next 30 years. So, we lean on emerging technology to help us out.

Dr. Khoshnevis’s work demonstrated that 3D-printed projects could be completed with lower costs, less waste, faster construction timelines, and fewer accidents.

Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis of the University of Southern California started playing with 3D-printed walls nearly 15 years ago. He created a printer mounted on a robotic arm to extrude concrete layers instead of plastic. He worked in additive manufacturing and came up with a method of creating walls using extruded snakes of concrete. He called it contour crafting technology.

Dr. Khoshnevis’s work demonstrated that projects could be completed with lower costs, less waste, faster construction timelines, and fewer accidents. Also, his methods had the capability to form complex shapes. Some are already looking toward a time when 3D -printing technology can embed sensors for air quality and temperature monitoring.

More 3D Technology

Enrico Dini, an Italian architect, started working on 3D-printed homes. Then he developed a process of using the printing technology to bind layers of sand together into a solid layer of material. These sand layers are deposited in a specified thickness, after which the print head drops a binder to solidify the sand.

A Dutch company called MX3D has also developed a construction method similar to the concrete extrusion technique called WAAM, Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing. The machine can 3D print metal structures using a six-axis robot that drops five pounds of material an hour.

MX3D collaborated with Air Liquide and ArcelorMittal on this creation, which also features a welder as well as a nozzle to weld layers of metal rods. Materials it can weld include stainless steel, bronze, aluminum, and Inconel.

But will it answer the needs of the frozen north?

The Conference Board of Canada, a nonprofit applied research organization, is exploring home building using 3D printing as an answer in remote locations where it’s difficult to transport materials and labor. A recent report, Revolutionary Building for the North: 3D Printing Construction, suggested the use of additive manufacturing to save costs and time while providing much needed housing and office space.

While uncertain whether the technology can overcome the climate issues faced in Canada, Stefan Fournier, the nonprofit’s associate director of northern and aboriginal policy, said, “There is a severe shortage of suitable housing and appropriate buildings across the North, and the high cost of standard construction and short transportation season have prevented governments from coming close to meeting the urgent need for housing in the North.”

Canada could also benefit from the flexibility of design that would allow housing to reflect local culture and values.

Construction-based 3D printing is entering an exciting phase of development. It might not be long before you see a 3D-robotic printer in your neighborhood. If you do, you should take the time to stop and watch it work, because that 3D-printed home will be done before you know it.

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