Robots open door to on-site printed buildings

Words:
Stephen Cousins

Software from furniture-assembling robots could see buildings 3D-printed on site

Engineers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore with their smart industrial robots.
Engineers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore with their smart industrial robots. Credit: NTU Singapore

The technology behind a pair of ‘smart’ industrial robots able to assemble flat-pack furniture almost as fast as humans will be adapted to 3D-print buildings on site, said the lead researcher on a project at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Engineers at the university used a 3D camera and two robots fitted with grippers and force sensors to build an Ikea chair in just over 20 minutes, a job that typically takes a person 10 to 15 minutes.

Sophisticated hardware and software enabled them to manipulate and assemble a series of parts placed randomly on the floor, coping with a higher level of complexity and unpredictability than manufacturing robots can.

The team now plans to exploit the technology to build a robot designed to 3D print in concrete that can adapt to the changing conditions of a building site.

Lead researcher Quang-Cuong Pham told RIBAJ: ‘The university is developing a six axis robot to carry out 3D printing for construction. The idea is to use the technology we have developed to make this possible on building sites where ground conditions are uneven and the environment is less predictable.’

Two robots and a 3D camera took 20 minutes to assemble this IKEA flat pack chair.
Two robots and a 3D camera took 20 minutes to assemble this IKEA flat pack chair. Credit: NTU Singapore

Robots used to assemble the chair are ‘aware’ of their surroundings and can alter their movements to avoid obstacles and the movement of the other robot. However it could take ‘over five years’ to develop a more advanced printing robot to be deployed on site, said assistant professor Pham: ‘Much research still needs to be carried out due to the higher levels of unpredictability involved, technical issues related to the accuracy of localisation, and safety – especially being able to avoid humans moving around site.’

The technology already demonstrated could have a more immediate impact on offsite manufacturing and the prefabrication of construction components. The university is working with manufacturing companies to translate its research and allow robots to perform unpredictable tasks away from assembly lines, said Pham.

In the future this robot might also be used on construction sites.
In the future this robot might also be used on construction sites. Credit: NTU Singapore

In the testbed, robots operate based on a mixture of pre-programming and artificial intelligence. Engineers programmed them to recognise what the parts of the chair looked like, how they should fit together, and in what order, but the robots had to figure out how to move, grab and manipulate the parts to build the chair.