3D cities and ant-like robots: disruption in construction

3D models
By Eleanor O'Neill, CA Today

20 March 2017

3D printing is having a massive impact on the manufacturing sector, and it's rapidly moving past the days of plastic novelties to a new reality - entires cities and megastructures at the push of a button. 

Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, has revolutionised a number of industries, such as product design and engineering, and is now being recognised as a viable mass manufacturing venture. Indeed, PwC identified the technology as one of the main future disruptors that businesses will need to plan for.

However, research conducted by trade union EEF last year found that only one in 10 manufacturers think the UK industry is well-prepared for digital advances and two in five fear being left behind.

The next few decades are slated to be the era of disruptive technological change and businesses are under pressure to adapt to the climate. Global spending on 3D printers increased to $11 billion in 2015 and that is set to increase to $27 billion in 2019.

In the construction sector, one company announced plans to build the world’s first 3D printed skyscraper.

Cazza, a construction technologies firm, has developed a new technique called 'crane printing' which can reportedly layer up to 2,153 square feet of concrete per day. This opens up the possibility of companies being able to commission buildings with multiple options for customisation.

Taking this process to its logical conclusion, it could be feasible to 'print' a new city or mega-hub at the touch of a button, but the end-product quality is still in debate.

A far more practical use of 3D printing in construction at the moment would be for scale physical models of intended construction projects.

Jason Spiller, Founder of UK-based 3D printing start-up Formwurx, said: "Whilst there are many stories about 3D printed buildings built from clay in Africa or concrete in China, they all have the issue that they effectively use the FDM method (squirting a fluid from a nozzle which then solidifies), typically from a large onsite 'printer'.

"This presents many problems in the manufacture of modern energy efficient buildings: the interface between different materials; adding supporting rebar in the 3D printed concrete; precisely adding insulation, and minimising thermal bridging to mention just a few."

Perfect solutions may not be forthcoming in the near future, but Jason sees plenty of potential in the immediate.

"A far more practical use of 3D printing in construction at the moment would be for scale physical models of intended construction projects, the use of physical prototyping of components prior to investing in expensive tooling for mass production, and short-run manufacture of bespoke items like door handles and light fittings for that client who wants something nobody makes."

This type of part-printing and partial assembly is the most common use of the technology at present, with everything from tools to car panels being printed from CAD files.

BT, for example, recently bought an industrial 3D printer for its Magna Park distribution centre so it can provide key parts to engineers on site. But the future may be altogether more exciting.

"My personal thoughts are that additive manufacturing will become a very real phenomenon in the construction workplace, but not using massive machines extruding concrete," explained Jason. 

"Rather a melding of smart materials, swarm robotics and some form of AI to create teams of cat-sized robots, probably insect-like in appearance which work like an ant colony.

It sounds like science fiction now, but individually all of these technologies are currently available, all it needs is someone with the forethought - and funding - to bring them together and allow the technology to mature a little.

"Imagine hundreds - maybe thousands if it's a Dubai megastructure - of these robotic insects, working in unison on a construction site, some extruding a quick setting concrete material, others filling cavities with insulation, or embedding wiring into the building fabric itself, all done with millimetre precision, on-site and at the same time to produce high performance structures.

"It sounds like science fiction now, but individually all of these technologies are currently available, all it needs is someone with the forethought - and funding - to bring them together and allow the technology to mature a little."

The next few decades are slated to be the era of disruptive technological change and businesses are under pressure to adapt to the climate. Global spending on 3D printers increased to $11 billion in 2015 and that is set to increase to $27 billion in 2019.

As additive manufacturing starts to filter down from industry to the commercial market, innovators need to be ready.


Other companies innovating with 3D-printing

  • General Electric: GE has invested in 3D printers to produce lightweight fuel nozzles for the new Leap jet engines.
  • Nike: Nike made 3D printed cleats for the 2014 Super Bowl and have since been incorporating printed parts into other designs.
  • DIY Rockets: The global community of engineers aims to reduce the costs of space exploration and are currently testing a 3D printed rocket engine.
  • Hershey's: Industry leader 3D Systems has partnered with confectioner Hershey's to build a printer for edible products.

Topics

  • Technology
  • Business

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