By now, large-scale 3D printing has been around for a few years. (Crazy, right?) But there's always been one big problem with existing technology: The printers need to be larger than the structures themselves. That's a problem that a team of researchers say they can solve with swarms of tiny robots.
The innovative thinkers at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia recently showed off a new kind of construction robot called Minibuilders. The idea behind these autonomous bots is that they divide up tasks to make the construction process cheaper and greener. The research team says that they'll make it possible to build bigger buildings without support structures—which are another requirement for traditionally 3D-printed buildings.
"The robots can work simultaneously while performing different tasks, and having a fixed size they can create objects of virtually any scale, as far as material properties permit," explain Petr Novikov and Sasa Jokic. "They are extremely easy to transport to the site. All these features make them incredibly efficient and reduce environmental footprint of construction."
The process itself sounds impressively simple. Fast Company's Adele Peters explains it succinctly:
The robots work in teams to squirt out material that hardens into the shell of the building. Foundation robots move in a track, building up the first 20 layers of the structure, and then a series of "grip" robots clamp on the top or sides adding more layers, ceilings, and frames for windows or doors. Vacuum robots attach on at the end to add a layer to reinforce everything.
So it sounds promising and simple, but that doesn't necessarily mean these little guys will be constructing skyscrapers in Midtown any time soon. For now, the researchers have shown proof of concept. You can watch the Minibuilders in action in a new video.
Now, the Spain-based research team wants to open up the floor for others to build on their inventions: They recently published the details of the robots' design and have asked their colleagues to chime in with improvements. In theory, this new approach to 3D-printed buildings could even be applied to other parts of the construction process like painting or piping, say the researchers.
Of course, it's still too early to say whether their technology will win out over other new types of 3D printing. For now, it's enough to see these little bots in action on a smaller scale—and know that before long, they could be printing bigger and better things. [FastCo Exist]
Shihui Jin, Stuart Maggs, Dori Sadan, and Cristina Nan also contributed to this research.