Whilst you won’t find it in your local 3D printer bureau quite yet, a 3DP machine has been developed by MIT, that can build an entire house. Its robotic arm sits on a tracked vehicle, sprays a moulding of insulation foam onto the ground and then fills it with concrete or rammed earth.
MIT isn’t the first organisation to build a 3D house, as one was built in China a couple of years ago. That one was not built in one piece, however, but assembled from 3D printed parts. The new machine built at MIT Media Lab aims higher – for the Moon to be precise. Developers hope a later version will one day construct shelters for astronauts, miners, or colonists on the Moon, Mars, or Antarctica. ‘Concrete’ will be manufactured on site from moon dust, Martian soil, or snow, with solar panels providing power.
The current machine has printed a simple 3D shelter in only 14 hours. The building is a dome 12’ high and 50’ in diameter. The prototype can already incorporate some complex shapes like benches, and later versions will have a wider inventory.
3D printed buildings are faster to build, cheaper than conventional buildings and easily customised for environmental conditions, available materials, or the customer’s preferences. Group director of the project, Neri Oxman, says it ‘facilitates a paradigm shift in the area of digital fabrication, but also for architectural design’.
It could well be that the first 3D printing service to operate on the Moon is sent ahead to automatically build homes for settlers following on behind.
Engineers in Perth, Australia, have created a robotic bricklayer called “Hadrian”, that can create the framework of a house in just two days, about 20 times faster than a human bricklayer. It’s arguably more robot than printer, but borrows some basic ideas including 3D computer-aided design.
Bricks travel along a boom and are positioned by a laser-guided claw, fixed in place with a squirt of mortar. It can even cut bricks to shape. This one is reckoned to easily meet terrestrial building codes and is ready to be “integrated into a building site tomorrow”.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is developing machinery to provide a 3D printing service on the Moon, to bake bricks from moon dust. Currently, at the DLR German Aerospace Centre facility in Cologne, the 3D printer uses additive layer technology, fusing dust together with a solar furnace composed of 150 concave mirrors. At the moment, each brick takes 5 hours, but on the Moon solar power will be more intense, so will speed up the process.
How about a house dispenser?
Robotic vending machines are in vogue these days, so why not a whole house? A ‘pod skyscraper’ has been proposed for Tokyo by Haseef Rafiei, an architecture student from Manchester University. A 3D printing service is provided within a high rise steel frame and programmed to assemble modular apartments that slot into vacant sections of the frame. If you move, you can take your pod with you.
Mr Rafiei says ‘the robotic construction of homes would be the sensible solution to address the growing demands of the housing market’. It’s the largest 3D printer yet envisioned and stretches our awareness of what is possible with 3DP.