Are robots changing the construction industry?


Throughout history, engineers have sought to understand how structures work and how forces inside a structure move from where loads are applied to supports and foundations. This is called structural optimization – using exactly the right amount of material in the required locations – a harmonization between architecture and engineering.

The computer performs seemingly impossible amounts of calculations in a matter of minutes (or even seconds), and the possibilities for optimization increase dramatically. Such a breakthrough has fueled the need to begin manufacturing these complex structures using techniques other than those traditionally available.

This is where 3D printing (additive manufacturing) of parts of the structure began to be designed, as it allows for the rapid production of several different shapes generally not possible with traditional construction. The additive manufacturing process involves building a material layer by layer. It offers unprecedented freedom of form, resulting in endless possibilities for customization. The material is exactly where it needs to be to perform its function of carrying the loads.

A grid shell is a columnless structure that spans large areas and looks like a shell formed by a grid of structural elements. The connections of each of the structural elements at different angles make its manufacture by 3D printing much more accessible. The Faculty of the Built Environment at the University of Malta is undertaking research into these connections and optimizing the intersections of these elements through a process called topology optimization.

The work and research mentioned so far are structured at the local level. Structural engineering projects are generally large-scale and require a significant amount of manpower. Recent advances in 3D printing techniques have also made it possible to print entire structures.

Concrete and steel 3D printing is also possible. The mobilization of 3D concrete can be done to allow printing on site, as was done in Austin, Texas. A concrete house consisted of 24 concrete elements, printed layer by layer in a factory in Eindhoven. The elements were then transported to site and placed on a foundation. Another house known as ‘3D Printing Channel House’ completed in 2018, was a research, design and construction project aimed at responding to new global housing solutions and market exploration in Amsterdam. .

Now is the time to propel the construction industry into the world of digitalization. From design to implementation, digitalization leads to sustainable and affordable structures, tailored to the wishes of architects and engineers.

Jeanette M Muñoz Abela is a compassionate revolutionary designer.

Sound clips

• Concrete 3D printing could be the future of construction on Earth and other planets. NASA is already exploring the possibility of 3D printing structures on the Moon and Mars as part of the Artemis program to build a 3D printed habitat for deep space exploration. NASA plans to set up a lunar terrain vehicle, lunar RV or habitable mobility platform and surface habitat on the moon by the end of 2030.

• Robots will help shape our future. In steel 3D printing, MX3D uses robotic arms for its system – they call it the Wiring Arc (WAAM) additive manufacturing robotic system. They use a controller, a power source and an arc welding machine. Find out how they do it by clicking on this link:

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• 3D printing has been around since 1984. Charles “Chuck” Hull was the first to successfully build a machine capable of placing layers of material on top of each other.

• Charles Hull’s 3D printing machine was called the stereolithography machine.

• Compared to traditional construction methods, 3D concrete printing guarantees shorter construction time, a safer working environment and greater freedom of form.

• When 3D printing in concrete, the concrete mix must be carefully designed to suit the extrusion techniques used.

• For 3D printed steel, the material must be heated to 1500 ° C to make it malleable enough for printing.

• The 12-meter-long MX3D bridge was built by four commercially available six-axis industrial robotic arms equipped with welding equipment, and it took six months to print.

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