InTrans / Dec 16, 2015

3D printing: Building future infrastructure

Go! Magazine

Mars robotposted on December 16, 2015

This month’s series is dedicated to 3D printing. From its conception, 3D printing has been identified as one of the most important advances of our time. In this article, I will be discussing some of the impacts 3D printers can have on the built environment.

In our last article, “3D printing: What can it hurt?,” we looked at some of the negative consequences of 3D printing. In this article, we are going to take a look at some of the newest advances in technology that 3D printing has to offer to improve our built infrastructure.

Steel bridges

The first 3D bridge is slated for creation in 2017. The 3D printing R&D firm MX3D, Autodesk (the developers of AutoCAD*), and a construction and civil engineering company called Heijmans have teamed up to build a pedestrian steel bridge across a canal in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

3D printed bridge prototype
3D printed bridge prototype by MX3D.

Using AutoCAD, the engineers on the project will first input the design, which gives directions to the robotic printers. The process involves the robots heating up the metal to 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit (°F) to build the bridge “drop by drop.” The steel was developed to “dry” really quickly and thus neutralize the effects of gravity to keep the lines straight. The autonomous robots used on this project are so impressive that as they move forward, they create their own supports and can cross the metal formations to create a self-supporting bridge design.

Designers say that the bridge will be a symbol connecting the rich history of the canal to the new technology of the future.1 With the entire process taking place on-site, the bridge will be both cost effective and reduce the amount of waste accumulated during construction.

Concrete buildings

“Building printing”—using 3D printing to build buildings—has gained traction in recent years. One group from Minnesota, led by an architect and engineer named Andrey Rudenko, has actually constructed a 3D printer that successfully printed the very first concrete castle! The printer was engineered to use a composite concrete mixture that is “layered” and dries quickly. At 12 feet tall, this castle is just the beginning of what some say will be a “new era of architecture.”

3D printed concrete castle
3D printed concrete castle.

Another group called DUS Architects, located in Amsterdam, Netherlands, promotes building printing as a way to reduce pollution and waste as compared to the conventional construction process. Their main project is to print a canal house, which, like the name implies, is a house overseeing a canal that is often slim and high.

The DUS Architects’ canal house will have 13 uniquely designed rooms. In one of the rooms already completed, plastic pieces were printed and then connected into other pieces (like Legos), which are nearly impossible to disconnect. This type of building could open the doors for even greater creativity in the future!

Though building printing technology is not ready to be used commercially, it could lead to huge changes in the construction industry. Instead of just having straight, rectangular structures for buildings, 3D printing allows for curvilinear structures to be printed on-site. Building printing could also have huge social and environmental impacts, including reduced waste and lower construction costs because of reduced labor.

Infrastructure… for Mars?

Yes, you read that correctly. There is a project led by a not-for-profit foundation called Mars One, whose goal is to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars by 2030.

Simulation of 3D printers on Mars building infrastructure
Simulation of 3D printers on Mars building infrastructure.

Sounds crazy, right? Well, Mars is actually the most habitable planet in our solar system, with somewhat comparable temperatures (70 °F in summer near its equator); sunlight and a protective atmosphere; and day/night rhythms of 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35 seconds. But, in order to even consider a move to Mars, infrastructure is needed.

A two year grant funded by NASA is supporting University of Southern California’s Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis—a professor and engineer—to create 3D printers able to use Martian soils to build roads, launching pads, and more.

Although the project is still in the start-up phase, the research team under Dr. Khoshnevis is hopeful that funding continues, so they can create successful 3D printers. However, they have already experienced one set back: Martian soils are much more abrasive compared to that of Earth, which requires the creation of sturdier printers. Did you know that Earth’s soil is only the way it is, because it is broken down by the ocean tides?

Mars One does believe human habitation on Mars is the next step for humankind. The unmanned aircraft, which will start building infrastructure, is scheduled to depart 2024. The current plans to send four people to Mars is estimated to cost six billion dollars and is set to launch in 2030.

Did you know?

*AutoCAD is a software application for 2D and 3D computer-aided design (CAD) and drafting. This software is being used to draft and print objects on 3D printers.



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By Jackie Nester, Go! Staff Writer

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