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Combining 3D Printing, Robotics, and Other Innovation in Smart Building Construction

December 14, 2020 by Kristijan Nelkovski

Additive manufacturing, already an innovative electrical design approach, is now crossing over to the field of construction—making it possible to manufacture 3D-printed buildings. Now, the next step for electrical engineers (EEs) is becoming clear: the development of embedded devices for the robotics-based construction of 3D-printed automated smart homes.

3D Construction of Buildings

In the past couple of years, multiple companies, such as Apis Cor, WASP and ICON, have developed advanced robotic machines for 3D printing in the area of construction. These machines allow for the additive manufacturing of buildings—much like traditional 3D printing—layer by layer.

An aerial photograph of the Crane WASP robot as it 3D prints a house design. Image Credit: 3DWASP.


However, while a traditional 3D printer deposits less-than-a-millimetre-thin layers of plastic onto a print bed, advanced robotic 3D-printing machines deposit centimetres-thick layers of concrete onto a building’s foundation. This can be achieved by either constructing a metal framework with a concrete extruder (see WASP’s extrusion process for an example) that moves on three axes—like traditional 3D printers—or by utilising a robotic arm that houses a freely-moving concrete extruder. (The former can only print within the framework that they’re housed in, whereas the latter can print buildings of any size by moving from one point to another on a construction site.)

These machines use the latest sensor technologies in combination with materials science innovations. Because they combine pneumatics, robotics, and precision sensors, systems such as these offer faster, safer, and more eco-friendly construction, given that such machines are quicker and more accurate than humans.

3D printer-based construction does, however, experience some drawbacks. For example, the technology is proficient when working on walls but struggles with doors, windows and floors, whose intricacies mean that human intervention is often necessary. Moreover, there are currently only small-scale buildings that can be 3D-printed, as buildings with more than a couple of floors require a tremendous infrastructure to be built before construction even starts.

While these processes can be scaled by engineering larger machines, an interesting improvement can be made with the integration of electronic devices during the 3D printing phase for the purpose of developing an embedded smart home within a 3D print. 


Embedding Smart Home Electronics With 3D Printing

A smart home is a building with integrated electronic devices, usually Internet of Things (IoT) devices that connect to a central network or the internet. The intention behind this is to better the lives of the inhabitants via the use of cleverly designed electronics and innovative software. These devices are sensors and electrical appliances that can be controlled and monitored via a computer network.


An infographic that introduces some of the advancements and advantages of 3D-printed smart buildings. Image Credit: Bigstock.


Companies such as LG and Samsung have been developing smart appliances for a while now. Lights, sound systems, televisions, and even ovens and fridges can be smart IoT-connected devices. This facilitates their manual control via the internet, or even automatically using sensor data and machine learning algorithms.

Currently, these smart devices end up being installed in a home after its construction, where walls need to be drilled (or cut into) for the wiring and placement of such electronics. With additive manufacturing, this can be fixed as the IoT modules can be pre-installed during the printing stage of the building and the network can be set up early on—therefore enabling the various smart devices to be plugged into any socket in any area of the house.

This is accomplished by engineers who ensure that the computer-aided design model of the building will accommodate ridges and spaces for IoT devices to be installed on the inside. Again, this means that the electronics can then be integrated by robots and/or humans once the building’s 3D printing stage begins.


Human Intervention During the Construction Period

As mentioned before, a core challenge to the 3D printing of houses is in adding the elements that aren't made out of concrete as the range of materials that can be used by these printers is limited and sometimes impractical. However, this allows for the installation of automatic variants of, for instance, the doors and windows, which can then connect to the nearby smart modules and be controlled via a network.

Roofs can also cause trouble when it comes to the 3D printing of buildings because their geometry requires a lot of support materials to be installed beforehand. Nevertheless, this would allow for the creation of some cleverly engineered tiles that can be installed after the fact.

One such type of tile that can benefit a smart home is the solar roof tile, which companies such as Tesla are currently manufacturing. Solar roof tiles are practical devices because they can connect to a smart home’s power grid and significantly cut down the use of non-renewable electricity. This facilitates not only the lowering of electricity expenses and pollution but also the seamless integration with the design of the house, given that the technology looks like regular roof tiles with no need for external solar panel installation.


Smart home design concept. Image Credit: Bigstock.


The Future of 3D Printing Smart Homes

Additive manufacturing is still a new practice in the field of construction; but nonetheless, EEs and other engineers are already familiar both with its robotic infrastructure and with embedding electronics into non-electronic objects. As our technology furthers and the environmental need for fast and cleaner construction becomes more necessary than ever, we’re very likely to one day see large-scale robots building our future homes and embedding their walls with the latest advances in internet of things technology.


For more information on 3D printing, search ‘3D printing’ on Electronics Point, where you’ll find articles on generative designelectrical systems design, medical prosthetics, and more.

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