MIT 3D printing for faster, cheaper, more adaptable building construction

Large building structures built could be produced faster and less expensively than traditional construction methods allow using a new MIT 3d printing system. A building could also be completely customized to the needs of a particular site and the desires of its maker. Even the internal structure could be modified in new ways; different materials could be incorporated as the process goes along, and material density could be varied to provide optimum combinations of strength, insulation, or other properties.

Ultimately, the researchers say, this approach could enable the design and construction of new kinds of buildings that would not be feasible with traditional building methods.


MIT researchers have designed a system that can 3-D print the basic structure of an entire building. The system consists of a tracked vehicle that carries a large industrial robotic arm, which has a smaller, precision-motion robotic arm at its end. Photo: Steven Keating, Julian Leland, Levi Cai, and Neri Oxman/Mediated Matter Group

The robotic system is described this week in the journal Science Robotics, in a paper by Steven Keating PhD ’16, a mechanical engineering graduate and former research affiliate in the Mediated Matter group at the MIT Media Lab; Julian Leland and Levi Cai, both research assistants in the Mediated Matter group; and Neri Oxman, group director and associate professor of media arts and sciences.

The system consists of a tracked vehicle that carries a large, industrial robotic arm, which has a smaller, precision-motion robotic arm at its end. This highly controllable arm can then be used to direct any conventional (or unconventional) construction nozzle, such as those used for pouring concrete or spraying insulation material, as well as additional digital fabrication end effectors, such as a milling head.

Unlike typical 3-D printing systems, most of which use some kind of an enclosed, fixed structure to support their nozzles and are limited to building objects that can fit within their overall enclosure, this free-moving system can construct an object of any size. As a proof of concept, the researchers used a prototype to build the basic structure of the walls of a 50-foot-diameter, 12-foot-high dome — a project that was completed in less than 14 hours of “printing” time.

For these initial tests, the system fabricated the foam-insulation framework used to form a finished concrete structure. This construction method, in which polyurethane foam molds are filled with concrete, is similar to traditional commercial insulated-concrete formwork techniques. Following this approach for their initial work, the researchers showed that the system can be easily adapted to existing building sites and equipment, and that it will fit existing building codes without requiring whole new evaluations, Keating explains.

Ultimately, the system is intended to be self-sufficient. It is equipped with a scoop that could be used to both prepare the building surface and acquire local materials, such as dirt for a rammed-earth building, for the construction itself. The whole system could be operated electrically, even powered by solar panels. The idea is that such systems could be deployed to remote regions, for example in the developing world, or to areas for disaster relief after a major storm or earthquake, to provide durable shelter rapidly.

The ultimate vision is “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,” says Keating, who led the development of the system as his doctoral thesis work.

The creation of this system, which the researchers call a Digital Construction Platform (DCP), was motivated by the Mediated Matter group’s overall vision of designing buildings without parts. Such a vision includes, for example, combining “structure and skin,” and beams and windows, in a single production process, and adapting multiple design and construction processes on the fly, as the structure is being built.

The nozzles of the new 3-D printing system can be adapted to vary the density of the material being poured, and even to mix different materials as it goes along. In the version used in the initial tests, the device created an insulating foam shell that would be left in place after the concrete is poured; interior and exterior finish materials could be applied directly to that foam surface.

The system can even create complex shapes and overhangs, which the team demonstrated by including a wide, built-in bench in their prototype dome. Any needed wiring and plumbing can be inserted into the mold before the concrete is poured, providing a finished wall structure all at once. It can also incorporate data about the site collected during the process, using built-in sensors for temperature, light, and other parameters to make adjustments to the structure as it is built.

Keating says the team’s analysis shows that such construction methods could produce a structure faster and less expensively than present methods can, and would also be much safer.

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