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MIT’s new robot can 3D print a building in half a day

Posted by Lisa Harvey,

3D printers have made the news for “printing” everything from food to artificial hearts, and even alien material. Now, this technology is moving onto something really big. As big as a house, that is! 3D printers are being used to print buildings.

A team of researchers from MIT Mediated Matter Group designed a robotic platform that can 3D print architecture. The automated platform, called Digital Construction Platform (DCP), recently printed a building in half a day. The entire 167 square meter structure was created in 13.5 hours. According to The Journal of Science, “At 14.6 meters across, the structure is the largest building ever 3D-printed by a mobile robot.”


Image Credit: Steven Keating, Julian Leland, Lev Cai, and Neri Oxman/Mediated Matter Group, MIT

Digital Construction Platform

The team, led by Steven Keating, Ph.D., published their research in the Journal of Science Robotics. The paper, Toward site-specific and self-sufficient robotic fabrication on architectural scales, describes the DCP. It is a mobile platform that uses tank-like treads to maneuver. It also has solar panels that can power the system, enabling use in remote locations.

The DCP consists of two robotic arms: A large industrial robot arm with a smaller KUKA robot attached to it. The large arm gives the robot its reach. The large robotic arm also has an excavator scoop so that it can use locally available building materials, such as soil. The KUKA robot provides precise control and can be fitted with a variety of tools such as foam and concrete sprayers, or specialized sanding tools.


(A) Full system with excavator attachment. (B) CAD rendering, top view. (C) CAD rendering, side view. Image Credit: Science Robotics.

Advantages over traditional building and printing techniques

The system is designed to provide a less expensive and safer way to create structures. It overcomes the limits of static 3Dprinters as well as the disadvantages in terms of labor and materials of traditional building processes.

Most 3D printers can only print objects that fit within their enclosures. This has limited the scale of the objects they can print. In contrast, the DCP is a mobile platform that can print as it moves along, enabling it to create structures of any width and length. Vertical reach is the only limitation. Unlike traditional building methods that are restricted by materials such as steel beams or wood planks, the DCP can create buildings in any shape. The image (A) below shows the DCP printing a straight wall while driving along.


The robotic platform with attached material carriage trailer, printing while driving. (B) A plot of measured trajectory from pose repeatability characterization. (C) Sensor harness attached to end of KUKA. (D) Detail of photovoltaic panels, electro-hydraulic pump, and hydraulic controls. Image Credit: Science Robotics.

Controlling the robots

The DCP uses real-time environmental data for process control. The DCP was controlled through a computer using feedback from mounted sensors on the system joints. Joint-space toolpaths were generated through a custom MATLAB toolchain based on Peter Corke’s robotics toolbox. The team also used data from a laser sensor and a custom MATLAB script to ensure the robot operated in accordance with ISO 9283:1998 standards. The plot for this data is shown in (B) in the image above.

Robot printed buildings in the future

The DCP can operate in a variety of locations. It can quickly construct structures of varying size and features. These structures can be adapted to site-specific environmental conditions. “The MIT researchers want to deploy their system in remote regions, such as in the developing world or in disaster relief areas, for example after a major earthquake, to provide shelter quickly,” stated CNN.

Future plans include autonomous, site-specific design in which sensors would determine the design requirements for the building. For example, ground penetrating radar could be used to determine the best location for supporting pillars and prevailing wind strength would be accounted for in building curvatures.

Keating states, “in the future, 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.”


Here’s a video of the DCP printing the structure:

View full video via Fortune.

Fun links on 3D printing:

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