There are already a host of projects aimed at using 3D printing for large-scale construction, and all the various solutions use what are basically a "cake decorating" approach to depositing layers of liquefied materials to arrive at a finished product. Enrio Dini of dshape, DUS Architects, UCLA, USC/Contour Crafting and architectural think tank Emerging Objects have all developed systems to build large structures in three dimensions using additive processes.
But now a team of researchers from Cornell have taken a slightly different approach to how that sort of large-scale construction might be accomplished. Using a smaller device which employs two large cylinders of a sort of toothpaste-like synthetic marble, Sasa Jokić, Petr Novikov and their team use compressed air to force the build material through flexible feeder tubes to small robots for deposition.
They call their device a "Minibuilder," and its advantages over gantry-based architectural printers might just find a foothold among construction companies.
"It's about any construction robots capable of working in teams to create structures much bigger than themselves," said Jokić. "We chose to make these three robots because they are all essential to fabricate the most important building elements like walls and ceilings, but the family of Minibuilders can be endlessly extended adding robots with diverse functionalities, from painting to insulation and beyond."
It's a more portable, modular approach to the problem, but realizing the idea is not without its own set of challenges.
Once a foundation has been created, basically the first couple of dozen strips of material, a "Grip Robot" which uses rollers for registration is attached to lay down horizontal layers on top of it through a nozzle as a pair of heaters "thermoset" the synthetic marble to cure it.
Jokić and Novikov, along with team members Shihui Jin, Stuart Maggs, Dori Sadan and Cristina Nan, created the system at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia.
Another fascinating aspect of the project is that you could, should you have the inclination, create your own version of the system. The frames for the Minibuilders themselves are made with open source parts. The basic parts are made with laser cut plastic pieces. You can buy all the motors and wheels necessary right down the street at your local hobby store and the electronics and code are accessible as well.
"We're sure that Minibuilders will play a big and important role in the future of robotic construction," Novikov said. "We also encourage other researchers to explore this field. For that reason we shared papers with technical details of our robots."