Editorial Feature

Using Autonomous 3D Printers to Repair Infrastructure and Environmental Deterioration


Image Credit: Srdjan Randjelovic/Shutterstock.com

Three collaborating companies have proposed the use of autonomous 3D-printing technologies to monitor and repair the damage to buildings, coral reefs and coastlines that challenging environmental problems cause.

The Danish companies - GXN Innovation, The Danish AM Hub and Map Architects - believe problems such as coastline erosion, coral reef damage and deteriorating buildings could be fixed by freeing up fleets of autonomous 3D printers.

GXN founder Kasper Jansen says freeing up 3D printers to meet these challenges could be a revolution in the making: "By enabling 3D-printing robots to crawl, swim and fly, we can address pressing environmental threats around the world at a lower cost and with greater efficiency."

GXN, an independent research arm of the Danish architecture firm 3XN, has started making prototypes based on currently available technologies. Along with an internationally active architectural platform MAP Architects and the government-funded Danish Am Hub, which supports research into additive manufacturing, GXN has now developed autonomous repair robots that move across the sea, land, and in the air.

The "Break the Grid" 3D Printing Technologies Concept

3D printers usually deposit material in a controlled manner as they move across a grid inside a frame. However, the companies want to "break the grid" of this traditional approach and have created mechanical and virtual prototypes that will open up new opportunities in additive manufacturing.

Head of Innovation at GXN, Kåre Stokholm Poulsgaard, said the researchers started thinking about what they could achieve with additive manufacturing if they let their imaginations run free and what sort of positive impact that could have on the built environment. Poulsgaard said: "The goal was to learn something about this, so we had this idea that we wanted to be able to set the printers free, so we needed to understand robotics and mobility, and what this means."

Working with roboticist Teodor Petrov, GXN started using products that were already available on the market, such as stepper motors and 3D printers, to build physical and virtual prototype autonomous repair robots. 

"We wanted to create something new, something that we haven't seen before, but we also wanted to make sure that whatever we created was tied into existing technologies and capabilities," said Stokholm Poulsgaard.

Watch the below video to find out more about The Danish AM Hub's discussion on 3D printing as a tool to revolutionize industries.

The potential in 3D printing

Video Credit: Danish AM Hub/YouTube.com

What Drove the Autonomous 3D Printer Initiative?

Three main environmental problem areas inspired the initiative that the Break the Grid team thought could be solved using the autonomous 3D printers.

The first problem area is how to maintain infrastructures worldwide. In the United States alone,  problems with structures such as bridges and roads are predicted to have cost the country's economy $4 trillion by the year 2025.

One of the designs is a robot that could fix microcracks in concrete before enough water and oxygen seeps in and causes further erosion. The repair robot the team envisaged would deposit a fungus called Trichoderma reesei, which promotes the formation of calcium carbonate to fill in the tiny cracks.

Another robot was designed to tackle the effects of climate change on coastlines. GXN said that because so many people in coastal areas live 10 meters above sea level, they are increasingly at risk of the coastal erosion caused by devastating storms and tsunamis. The company's answer was an adhesive based on an oyster-produced glue that underwater drones could mix with ocean-floor sand to create a bio-cement. This wet-setting binding material would fix coral reef structures to prevent coastal erosion, while also reinforcing marine life habitats.

A third challenge is the significant heat and energy losses from older city buildings as they deteriorate. The Break the Grid team's solution is flying drones that would move around the tops of high-rise buildings and reinforce the thermal bridges of their facades, which the group says accounts for up to around one-third of heat and energy losses. Researchers are also investigating how customizable glass and polymer-based composite materials could be used to insulate the buildings.

Click here to find out more about the 3D printing equipment currently used in many industries.

Additive Manufacturing Potential to Increase Productivity in the Construction Sector

GXN hopes that autonomous 3D printers could one day operate alongside people working in the construction sector. Stokholm Poulsgaard says this is one of the last large industry sectors to not benefit from the productivity growth that comprehensive automation provides.

GXN hopes that the use of drones and robotics-assisted vehicles will soon become commonplace in the building environment.

Rather than replace the large human workforce, Stokholm Poulsgaard says it would be about using the robots to free up people to do what they are best at, which would boost productivity and efficiency. The devices would also allow architects more freedom by mass-producing compounds at a much cheaper cost than would be seen with traditional methods. 

Click here to read more about how 3D printing has been used in other areas of science.

What Does the Future Hold for Autonomous 3D Printing Solutions?

While the Break the Grid designs are currently only speculative, they are based on real and emerging 3D printing technologies.

"Converging technologies are enabling new approaches to construction," explained CEO of The Danish AM Hub CEO Mads Kjøller Damkjær. "We hope to inspire the additive manufacturing industry to envision new possibilities, which will require combining design and technology to shift our values and our current ways of thinking."

References and Further Reading

Rima Sabina Aouf. (2019) Danish designers propose using roaming 3D-printing robots to repair environments. Dezeen. Available at: https://www.dezeen.com/2019/08/23/break-the-grid-3d-printing-robots-technology/ (Accessed on 31 March 2020).

Kristin Houser. (2019) DESIGNERS WANT TO GIVE 3D PRINTERS LEGS, LET THEM WANDER THE EARTH. Futurism. Available at: https://futurism.com/the-byte/3d-printers-legs-repair-environment (Accessed on 31 March 2020).

David A. Garcia. MAP Architects. Available at: http://www.maparchitects.dk/the-studio-2/ (Accessed on 31 March 2020).

Drew Zeiba. (2019) GXN thinks the future of construction could be flying 3D printers. The Architect's Newspaper. Available at: https://archpaper.com/2019/07/gxn-future-of-construction-3d-printing-drones/ (Accessed on 31 March 2020).

Kieron Marchese. (2019) GXN proposes underwater 3D printers to repair the cracks in our planet. Designboom. Available at: https://www.designboom.com/technology/gxn-break-the-grid-underwater-3d-printing-drones-repair-cracks-07-25-2019/ (Accessed on 31 March 2020).

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Sally Robertson

Written by

Sally Robertson

Sally first developed an interest in medical communications when she took on the role of Journal Development Editor for BioMed Central (BMC), after having graduated with a degree in biomedical science from Greenwich University.


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