How 3D printing robots could power greener construction
Newswise — ITHACA, NY – A New 6,000 pound industrial robot at Cornell University can 3D print the kind of large-scale structures that could transform the construction industry, making it more efficient and sustainable by eliminating the waste of traditional material manufacturing.
Cornell is now one of the few American universities to have such a system. The IRB 6650S industrial robot system arrived in February, and over the past few months the Bovay laboratory was trained to use the robotic system – which is basically a long swivel arm – and run a number of medium-sized test prints, including benches and planters.
“The robotic system is versatile and flexible,” said Sriramya Nair, lecturer in civil and environmental engineering. “One of the ways we use it is for 3D printing concrete, but it can also be used in other ways. You can attach a welder or a laser system. You can stack bricks or attach rebar. Many tedious processes can be automated.
The process is labor intensive, but when done successfully, 3D printing eliminates the need for molds and allows for the creation of unconventional shapes – optimizations that waste less material.
“Whenever you pour poured concrete, like for a sidewalk, you have to put all the molds in place. It takes manpower, equipment, everything has to be staked out. This all takes a lot of time,” said James Strait, technical services manager for the Bovay Lab. “Every change you make to a concrete structure, you have to change the mold or get a new mold and spend manpower to do it. It’s a lot harder than going into a computer program and to say, “Want it rounded? Click. A few hours and you’re done.”
Nair plans to incorporate the system into a new class she teaches in the fall, Sustainability and Automation: The Future of the Construction Industry, which will help prepare students for the changes ahead in their field.
For now, the system is 3D printing with mortar, which is technically a paste with aggregates up to 4 millimeters in size. Anything larger than this could block and damage the pump system. However, Nair’s team intends to build its own extruder head to print steel-fibre reinforced concrete, which uses larger aggregates capable of supporting heavier loads. This will pave the way for the lab to 3D print complete bridge components and test them.
Nair also hopes his band can create their own mix to print with, rather than relying on the manufacturer’s pre-mixed material.
“The carbon footprint of these materials is very high right now,” she said. “So that’s another goal, to reduce the carbon footprint associated with 3D printed materials.”
For more information, see this History of the Cornell Chronicle.