Just a few days ago, we wrote about Iridescence Print, an art installation in Paris that presented an entirely new way of 3D printing full-scale architectural structures with minimal material and almost no spatial limitations, opening up new possibilities in 3D printing construction. Given the recent advancements in 3D printed construction and increasing demand for 3D printed housing solutions, we decided to look further into Mesh Mould 3D printing technology and other construction robots created by Gramazio Kohler Research and scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich).
Utilizing an industrial robot equipped with a custom extrusion tool that can 3D print continuous mesh structures freely in space, Mesh Mould 3D printing allows for large-scale geometrically complex structures to be built on the spot, and is more time and resource efficient than the 2D horizontal layering of materials—the process most commonly used by construction 3D printers—since the material is brought directly to where it is required in space. The technology “enables a paradigm shift from layer-based approaches” and is “key to exploring the full potential of 3D printing in real-world architecture applications.”
To be more specific, in a construction rather than an art-installation context, the Mesh Mould research project could be used to concentrate on the fabrication of formwork—which is the temporary or permanent mould into which concrete is poured to form a wall or other structure. Indeed in construction, concrete, the most commonly used construction material, is almost always separated into its heavy structural mass and light, shape-defining formwork. By using Mesh Mould 3D printing technology to freely extrude polymers in space, precisely controlled by a robotic arm, workers could create highly complex, customized formwork directly on the construction site, in nearly any shape or size, and with zero material waste.
“A shift away from this outdated ‘one size fits all’ ideology towards a new fabrication paradigm based on flexible, robotic in-situ fabrication could promote an alternative tectonic that encourages variation and differentiation instead of being bound to geometric simplification, standardization, and repetition,” wrote Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler. “The feasibility of non-standard fabrication…leaves little doubt over its potential at the construction scale.”
In their ongoing research in robotics and architecture, Gramazio and Kohler also recently oversaw the creation of the In-Situ Fabricator, the first autonomous construction robot capable of laying bricks into pre-programmed structures. “It’s the first machine that can actually go on construction sites and build non-standard designs, meaning designs which can vary and adapt to the local conditions directly in the building site,” said Kohler. Based again on an industrial robot arm, the In-Situ Fabricator uses a 2D laser range finder to build a 3D map of the construction site, meaning that it ‘knows’ where it is at all times, and can quickly adapt to unforeseen circumstances, such as a dropped construction tool, or last-minute design changes. The benefits of a construction robot like this include faster and more accurate construction, as well as reducing the planning time required before building begins.
While it may seem like using autonomous Mesh Mould 3D printing robots to create the formwork and the In-Situ Fabricator to automatically lay-bricks would spell the end for actual human workers on the construction site, Kohler insists that this is not the point of their research—quite the opposite in fact. “I think this will become a game-changer in construction, I believe so. I think that in the next five to ten years we are going to see mobile robots on the construction site, but they’re not going to replace humans. They’ll actually collaborate with humans, so the best of each kind of skills come together.”
Both the Mesh Mould 3D printing project and In-Situ Fabricator require more testing and research, however they clearly demonstrate the feasibility of robotically printed mesh structures and the construction of non-standard designs directly on-site. Advances in 3D printing construction technology are culminating at an exciting pace, begging the question of when the technology will reach its peak, and real-life implementation will become a r
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