3-D Printing Martian and Lunar Housing

3dprinted_moon_base1For enthusiasts of 3-D printing and its many possibilities, a man like Berokh Khoshnevis needs no introduction. As for the rest of us, he is the USC’s Director of Manufacturing Engineering, and has spent the last decade working on a new direction for this emerging technology. Back in 2012, he gave a lecture at TEDxTalks where he proposed that automated printing and custom software could revolutionize construction as we know it.

Intrinsic to this vision are a number of technologies that have emerged in recent years. These include Computer-Assisted Design/Computer-Assisted Manufacturing (CAD/CAM), robotics, and “contour crafting” (i.e. automated construction). By combining design software with a large, crane-sized 3-D printing machine, Khoshnevis proposes a process where homes can be built in just 20 hours.

contour-craftingKhoshnevis started working on the idea when he realized the gigantic opportunity in introducing more speed and affordability into construction. All of the technology was already in place, all that was required was to custom make the hardware and software to carry it all out. Since that time, he and his staff have worked tirelessly to perfect the process and vary up the materials used.

Working through USC’s Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies, Khoshnevis and his students have made major progress with their designs and prototypes. His robotic construction system has now printed entire six-foot tall sections of homes in his lab, using concrete, gypsum, wood chips, and epoxy, to create layered walls sections of floor.

3dprinted_moon_base3The system uses robotic arms and extrusion nozzles that are controlled by a computerized gantry system which moves a nozzle back and forth. Cement, or other desired materials, are placed down layer by layer to form different sections of the structure. Though the range of applications are currently limited to things like emergency and temporary shelters, Khoshnevis thinks it will someday be able to build a 2,500-square-foot home in 20 hours.

As he describes the process:

It’s the last frontier of automation. Everything else is made by machines except buildings. Your shoes, your car, your appliances. You don’t have to buy anything that is made by hand.

contour-crafting2As Khoshnevis explained during his 2012 lecture at TEDx, the greatest intended market for this technology is housing construction in the developing world. In such places of the world, this low-cost method of creating housing could lead to the elimination of slums as well as all the unhealthy conditions and socioeconomic baggage that comes with them.

But in the developed world, he also envisions how contour crafting machines could allow homes to be built more cheaply by reducing labor and material costs. As he pointed out in his lecture, construction is one of the most inefficient, dirty and dangerous industries there is, more so than even mining and oil drilling. Given a method that wastes far less material and uses less energy, this would reduce our impact on the natural environment.

3dprinted_moon_base2But of course, what would this all be without some serious, science fiction-like applications? For some time now, NASA and the ESA has been looking at additive manufacturing and robotics to create extra-terrestrial settlement. Looking farther afield, NASA has given Khoshnevis a grant to work on building lunar structures on the moon or other planets that humans could one day colonize.

According to NASA’s website, the construction project would involve:

Elements suggested to be built and tested include landing pads and aprons, roads, blast walls and shade walls, thermal and micrometeorite protection shields and dust-free platforms as well as other structures and objects utilizing the well known in-situ-resource utilization (ISRU) strategy.

3dprinted_moon_baseMany existing technologies would also be employed, such as the Lunar Electric Rover, the unpressurized Chariot rover, the versatile light-weight crane and Tri-Athlete cargo transporter as well some new concepts that are currently in testing. These include some habitat mockups and new generations of spacesuits that are currently undergoing tests at NASA’s Desert Research And Technological Studies (D-RATS).

Many of the details of this arrangement are shrouded in secrecy, but I think I can imagine what would be involved. Basically, the current research and development paradigm is focusing on combining additive manufacturing and sintering technology, using microwaves to turn powder into molten material, which then hardens as it is printed out.

sinterhab3To give you an idea of what they would look like, picture a crane-like robot taking in Moon regolith or Martian dust, bombarding it with microwaves to create a hot glue-like material, and then printing it out, layer by layer, to create contoured modules as hard as ceramic. These modules, once complete, would be pressurized and have multiple sections – for research, storage, recreation, and whatever else the colonists plan on getting up to.

Pretty cool huh? Extra-terrestrial colonies, and a cheaper, safer, and more environmentally friendly construction industry here on Earth. Not a bad way to step into the future! And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video of contour crafting at work, courtesy of USC’s Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies:


Sources:
fastcoexist.com, nasa.gov

The 3D Printing Revolution

3D-printing1From the way people have been going on about 3D printing in the past few months, you’d think it was some kind of fad or something! But of course, there’s a reason for that. Far from being a simple prescriptive technology that requires us all to update our software or buy the latest version in order to “stay current”, 3D printing is ushering in a revolution that will literally change the world.

From design models and manufactured products, the range of possibilities is now venturing into printed food and even artificial organs. The potential for growth is undeniable, and the pace at which progress is happening is astounding. And on one of my usual jaunts through the tech journals and video-sharing websites, I found a few more examples of the latest applications.

ord_bot_2_2_display_mediumFirst up is this story from Mashable, a social media news source, that discusses NYU student Marko Manriquez’s new invention: the BurritoBot. Essentially a 3D food printer that uses tortillas, salsa, guacamole and other quintessential ingredients, Manriquez’s built this machine for his master’s thesis using open-source hardware – including the ORD bot, a 3D printing mechanical platform (pictured above).

The result is a food printer that an tailor-make Burritos and other Mexican delights, giving users the ability to specify which ingredients they want, in which proportion, and all through an app on their smartphone. No demos available online as of yet, but Mashable provides a pretty good breakdown on how it works, as well as Manrquez’s inspiration and intent behind its creation:


Next up, there’s Cornell University’s food printer that allows users to created desserts. In this CNN video, Chef David Arnold at the French Culinary Institute shows off the printer by creating a chocolate cake, layer by layer, dough and icing. A grad student from Cornell’s Computational Synthesis Lab was on hand to explain that their design is also open-source, with the blueprints and technical design made available online so anyone can build their own.

As Chef Arnold explained, his kitchen has been using the printer to work with ingredients ranging from cookie dough, to icing to masa – the corn meal tortillas are made from. It also allows for a degree of accuracy that many may not possess, while still offering plenty of opportunities to be creative. “The only real limitation now is that the product has to be able to go through a syringe,” he said. “Other than that, skies the limit.”


But even more exciting for some are the opportunities that are now being explored using metals. Using metal powder and an electron beam to form manufactured components, this type of “additive manufacturing” is capable of turning out parts that are amazingly complex, far more so than anything created through the machining-process.

In this next video, the crew from CNNMoney travel to the Oakridge National Lab in Tenessee to speak to the Automation, Manufacturing and Robotics Group. This government-funded lab specializes in making parts that are basically “structures within structures”, the kind of things that are used in advanced prosthetic limbs, machinery, and robots. As they claim, this sort of manufacturing is made possible thanks to the new generation of 3D ABS and metal printers.

Oakridge_natlabWhat’s more, this new process is far more efficient. Compared to old fashioned forms of machining, it consumes less energy and generates far less waste in terms of materials used. And the range of applications is extensive, embracing fields as divergent as robotics and construction to biomedical and aerospace. At present, the only real prohibition is the cost of the equipment itself, but that is expected to come down as 3D printing and additive manufacturers receive more market penetration.


But of course, all of this pales in comparison to the prospect of 3D printed buildings. As Behrokh Khoshnevis – a professor of Industrial & Systems Engineering at USC – explains in this last video from TEDxTalks, conventional construction methods are not only inefficient, labor intensive and dangerous, they may very well be hampering development efforts in the poorer parts of the world.

As anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of poverty and underdevelopment knows, slums and shanty-towns suffer disproportionately from the problems of crime, disease, illiteracy, and infant mortality. Unfortunately, government efforts to create housing in regions where these types of communities are common are restrained by budgets and resource shortages. With one billion people living in shanties and slum-like shelters, a new means of creating shelter needs to be found for the 21st century.

contour-craftingThe solution, according to Khoshnevis, lies in Contour Crafting and Automated Construction –  a process which can create a custom house in just 20 hours! As a proponent of Computer-Assisted Design and Computer-Assisted Manufacturing (CAD/CAM), he sees automated construction as a cost-effective and less labor resource-intensive means of creating homes for these and other people who are likely to live in unsafe, unsanitary conditions.

The technology is already in place, so any claims of that is of a “theoretical nature” are moot. What’s more, such processes are already being designed to construct settlements on the moon, incorporating robotics and 3D printing with advanced computer-assisted simulations. As such, Khoshnevis is hardly alone in advocating similar usages here on planet Earth.

The benefits, as he outlines them, are dignity, safety, and far more sanitary conditions for the inhabitants, as well as the social benefits of breaking the pathological cycle of underdevelopment. Be sure to check out his video below. It’s a bit long, but very enlightening!


Once in awhile, its good to take stock of the future and see that it’s not all creepy robots and questionable inventions. Much of the time, technological progress really does promise to make life better, and not just “more convenient”. It’s also especially good to see how it can be made to improve the lives of all people, rather than perpetuating the gap between the haves and the have nots.

Until next time, keep your heads high and your eyes to the horizon!