I just ran across an interesting website called TXCHNOLOGIST that’s sponsored by the folks at GE. There are all sorts of cool articles here accompanied by lots of pretty pictures (“Ooooh, Shiny!”) But the article that really caught my eye was about 3D printing – in particular, about the possibility of using robots to “print” houses out of concrete.
Before we plunge into this topic, it’s worth noting that technologies to create objects in 3D have been around in different forms for quite a while now. When I was at an automotive show in Detroit in the mid-1990s, for example, I remember seeing this monster machine that had a huge roll of paper at one end (I think the roll was about 6 feet across and several feet in diameter).
This really was a “thing of beauty to behold.” First, robotic arms / hands / fingers / manipulators / whatever grabbed the end of the roll and pulled the paper across the surface of a metal table (actually the paper was initially held taught a few centimeters above the surface of the table for reasons that will become apparent). Next, suction through millions of pin-prick hold in the table pulled the paper down onto the table’s surface and held it steady. Then more robot arms with lasers whipped around almost faster than you could see cutting a 2D shape out of the paper, after which the unwanted paper was removed.
Now, more robot arms sprayed the upper surface of the paper with some form of adhesive. Then the whole process began again. Remember when I said that the paper was initially held taught a few centimeters above the surface of the table? Well, since the table was about 6 feet wide and eight feet long, you can imagine that the paper would soon sag in the middle and touch the table or the adhesive-covered paper. The reason this wasn’t a problem was that everything was happening so fast. The paper was pulled out so quickly that it didn’t have time to sag before it was sucked down into place.
I really can’t convey how fast this all happened – sheet after sheet after sheet – everything was a blur. After each new layer of paper was applied, the surface of the table was lowered by the thickness of that sheet. Over the course of a couple of hours, a 3D model of a complete car engine was created.
Another 3D printing technique I’ve seen involves a tank of some liquid (a polymer, I think). There’s also some sort of flat surface/base located a fraction of an inch below the surface of the liquid. Lasers are used to “draw” an image into the liquid, which solidifies when the lasers hit it. Once that layer has been completed, the base is lowered a fraction of an inch, and the lasers create the next layer, and so on and so forth until a 3D object is created.
And then there’s the idea of using something like an ink-jet printer that uses plastic to “print” 3D objects. Again this happens layer-by-layer. One really good example of this is RepRap (www.reprap.org). In addition to printing plastic objects, the fact that many parts of RepRap are themselves made from plastic means that it’s very close to being a self-replicating machine.
As usual, of course, I’ve wandered off onto the weeds. The point of this column was to talk about the article I saw on the TXCHNOLOGIST website about the possibility of using robots to “print” houses out of concrete. One of the images accompanying this article showed a robot “printing” a building on the moon – anything to do with space always “tickles my fancy”.
This isn’t just “pie in the sky” – NASA is seriously contemplating this technology as a possible way to build lunar structures – so much so that in November 2011 they awarded a grant to the company in question as part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.
And, returning to Earth, can you imagine having the ability to upload a design specification into a robotic system that can print a concrete house in less than a day? Consider what this type of capability could offer in terms of disaster relief (the ongoing horrors in Haiti following the earthquake from two years ago immediately spring to mind).
While this sort of thing may seem “far future” to some people, I personally think there are a lot of possibilities here, and that we will be seeing this type of technology being deployed sooner than you might imagine.Click Here
to see the original article and learn more about this technology.
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