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Minibuilders: An experiment in builder bots

The race is on to create a robotic team capable of creating structures far bigger than themselves -- such as buildings.


As robotics become more sophisticated, the possibility of automating more of the processes in our lives grows. And, although they're not capable of creating the complex structures we use for living quite yet, we have certainly seen the emergence of robotic systems that can build simple ones.

Researchers at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia have created as a thesis project a family of three robots -- each with its own discrete task -- collectively called Minibuilders that can build structures by tapping into another burgeoning field: 3D printing.

A structure is built in three stages. First, the Foundation Robot performs circuits of the perimeter of the plan, placing 20 foundation layers, moving either continuously or back and forth. Each robot is on treads to get around, and has a sensor at the front to read the line it is to follow. A vertical linear actuator positions the extruder at the level of the layer it is currently printing, and a tube connects it to the master robot, which supplies the printing material.

After the foundation is laid, the Grip Robot takes over. The Grip Robot attaches to the existing structure using roller clamps. It moves around the walls, printing as it goes, and using heaters to cure the printing material faster -- meaning that, by the time it comes around again, it has a sturdier surface to grip onto. Actuators allow the extruder to shift from side to side in order to print curved walls.

The Grip Robot can even grip onto horizontally printed structures -- such as the roof of a structure -- and can also be programmed to factor in window and door lintels.

Finally, the Vacuum Robot attaches to the shell created by the first two robots using a vacuum generator and suction pump, printing additional layers over the top to reinforce the structure. These additional layers don't necessarily need to be printed over the entire shell; they can, for instance, be used only where the structure needs additional reinforcement, printed in freeform.

A 1:1 scale prototype build by the three robots is currently on display at the Design Museum of Barcelona, and a documentary about the process of creating Minibuilders will be available soon. You can find more information on the Minibuilders website.

Minibuilders is a project of IAAC, Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, developed during Open Thesis Fabrication in 2013 by:

Researchers: Shihui Jin, Stuart Maggs, Dori Sadan and Cristina Nan
Faculty: Saša Jokić and Petr Novikov
Sponsored by: SD Ventures