MIT researchers have expanded the list of items that can be made with 3D printers, which now includes entire buildings.

According to news reports, structures built with 3D printers have a range of advantages.
The obvious advantages are a decrease in construction times and lower overall costs. But there are also a number of less conspicuous benefits, such the ability to optimise strength, improve insulation, and to customise building characteristics with greater ease.

One new 3D-printing ‘robot’ that was recently prototyped at MIT allows new and innovative materials to be used in housebuilding.

This robotic system was recently described in a paper by Steven Keating, the MIT PhD graduate who – together with fellow researchers Julian Leland, Levi Cai and group director Neri Oxman – designed the system.

The ‘robotic’ printer, called the Digital Construction Platform (DCP), is engineered much like a human shoulder and hand. It consists of a tracked vehicle that carries a large, industrial hydraulic robotic arm that is in turn equipped with a smaller, precision-motion arm at its tip.

The smaller arm is used to direct a construction nozzle – which can be used to pour concrete or spray insulation material – and to control fabrication machinery (for instance, a digital milling head).

Unlike traditional 3D-printing systems, which use an enclosed and fixed structure to support the printing nozzle and are therefore constricted to building objects that fit their enclosures, this new free-moving system can print and construct objects of just about any size.

The researchers also showed that this method can be easily adapted to just about any building site. As Keating said, the DCP will fit existing building codes “without requiring new evaluations”.

According to the researchers, the ultimate goal was to create a completely autonomous robotic building system. 

While this method of building may be new, it is also by no means unique. Earlier this year, San Francisco-based 3D-printing start-up Apis Cor used a huge 3D printer to design and install concrete walls on a test home site in Russia.

While at 37 square meters the house is relatively small, its walls were nonetheless completed within 24 hours. According to Apis Cor, it will also last up to 175 years, even despite the harsh Russian winter.

Apis Cor has also pointed to more urgent uses of this 3D printable building technology. In particular, they noted the construction of houses following natural disasters, or in other cases where there is a need to erect a large number of houses quickly.