By Don Reisinger
April 27, 2017

With 3D printing slowly coming into its own, researchers at MIT have conceived a way for robots to do much of the heavy lifting when constructing a building.

MIT researchers published a paper in the latest issue of the journal Science Robotics about their development of a 3D-printing robot that can build a free-standing structure. According to CNET, which obtained a copy of the paper, the vehicle has one large robotic arm with a smaller robotic arm at its tip. The larger arm moves around the structure while the smaller arm sprays concrete, spray insulation, and other materials used to construct a building.

The 3D printing industry has been growing rapidly in recent years. In the consumer market, users can buy small 3D printers that can be used to design and develop small figurines, eating utensils, and other small goods. Sophisticated consumer machines use a wide array of materials and liquids to create whatever it is the user wants to print.

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In the commercial industry, however, 3D printing provides a range of benefits. 3D printers are capable of reducing manufacturing spend, and—in some cases—can deliver more units in a given time than traditional manufacturing units. So far, 3D printers are being used to do everything from create components in hardware products to food. There’s also some hope that 3D printers could play a prominent role in the medical industry and create bespoke equipment for patients.

In order for 3D printers to work, they first need a reference design and materials that a user would insert into them. The 3D printers then spray the materials to look identical to the digital design users have created.

In the case of MIT, the researchers designed a basic dome measuring 50 feet in diameter and 12 feet tall. Armed with concrete and insulation foam, the 3D printing robot created the structure layer by layer. It took 14 hours to complete.

In an interview with MIT News, the researchers envisioned several ways in which the 3D-printed buildings could be used. They believe that the 3D printing method could allow companies to construct buildings that cannot be so easily built with existing technology. They also believe that as 3D printing progresses, their robot could be used in disparate parts of the world, or even on other planets, to construct buildings.

One of the researchers, Stephen Keating, said it’s possible the robot could be sent “to the moon or Mars or Antarctica, and it would just go out and make these buildings for years.”

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