US Army to Study Construction 3D Printing for Disaster Relief Structures

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A $3.5 million contract will see researchers from the University of Arkansas (U of A) study the use of construction 3D printing for disaster relief on behalf of the U.S. Army. Particularly interesting is the fact that the additive construction (AC) will be performed by collaborative robots. Conducting the research alongside Michelle Barry, an associate professor of civil engineering, and Cameron Murray, an assistant professor of civil engineering, is Wenchao Zhou, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, whose startup, AMBOTS, will be involved on the software programming side of the project.

The $3.5 million subaward comes as part of a larger $12 million award provided to Applied Research Associates (ARA), a research and engineering firm headquartered in New Mexico, from the United States Army Engineer Research and Development Center. This project is meant to study the feasibility of having an expeditionary force deployed to a disaster site and 3D print horizontal construction projects (e.g., culverts, T-walls and Jersey barriers) using local materials.

A Jersey barrier.

The U of A team will identify optimum design patterns and indigenous materials that can be used in. Moreover, they will also create the code for mobile robots to be deployed on site create these structures. Over the course of the next two years, the team will develop its prototype, with funds being used to acquire a large-format 3D printer and additional equipment for soil and concrete characterization.

Using Local Materials

While Barry, responsible for the school’s Granular Materials Research Laboratory, will explore new material structures and geometric configurations for maximum performance and efficiency. Proposed concepts include biomimetic structures, such as honeycomb patterns, meant to reduce material while optimizing strength.

Murray is involved in other concrete testing research with the U.S. Army. Image courtesy of University Relations at the University of Arkansas

She will also be logging and studying a variety of indigenous soils for their ability to mix with concrete, with Murray, who specializes in concrete, analyzing the resulting composition and performing large-scale testing of objects made with the materials. By relying on local materials, as opposed to shipping cement and aggregates across large distances, cost, time, and environmental impact can be reduced. An expeditionary force would hypothetically be able to turn to Barry’s catalog of recipes for concrete mixes adapted to local conditions knowing that they can be pumped and 3D printing using mobile robots.

“Humans have been building with soils for thousands of years, but 3D printing soils enables us to use soils in new and exciting ways. We can build structures or roads in disaster relief areas,” Barry said, “where you’re just bringing in a piece of equipment because you might not be able to bring in other construction materials. If the local soils will work, you print with them for the time being, people are sheltered and then once it’s not needed, it dissolves back to the original landscape.”

Swarm Robotics for Construction 3D Printing

In addition to co-founding AMBOTS, which is focused on swarm robotic manufacturing, Zhou is the director of the Advanced Manufacturing, Modeling and Materials Lab at the U of A.  Zhou will be responsible for seeing that the CAD files for the structures are properly translated into machine code for multiple machines to collaborate in 3D printing a variety of materials. For that reason, AMBOTS will lead software development for the robots, which will be designed to work independently and with one another, adapting to different mixes.

T-walls shipped to KAF compound in Afghanistan. Apr. 28, 2012. Image courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Karla Marshall.

“We’re excited to have the opportunity to work with ARA and leverage their industry knowledge and experience to develop cutting-edge 3D printing capabilities,” Zhou said. “This grant will enable us to invest in research and development, driving the innovation of our swarm 3D printing technology and unlocking new possibilities for the future of construction and other industries.”

APA is an interesting partner in this project, as it is already involved in infrastructure and national security. This includes “surface transportation research and development, pavement engineering and testing, pavement marking services, transportation asset management, traffic monitoring, geotechnical solutions, risk management, policy and planning, roadway safety, autonomy, and innovating training solutions and technology deployment.” As for national security, the company writes, “Our roots began in military support in 1979, simulating and analyzing weapons effects and developing new weapon systems to increase our forces’ technological superiority. With modeling and simulation at our core, ARA has grown to comprise a broad array of research and development capabilities designed to protect facilities, enhance warfighter effectiveness, and save lives.”

Trends in 3D Printing and Additive Construction

A culvert in the U.K.

The project highlights several overlapping trends in the additive manufacturing (AM) industry. Mexican concrete giant CEMEX has developed its own formula that enables the use of local aggregates and cement to 3D print structures, as demonstrated by COBOD’s more recent AC projects. Meanwhile, WASP has focused on using primarily indigenous soils and clays for its AC structures. Given the carbon footprint of the global cement industry, as well as the increasing scarcity of resources on the whole, the shift to local earth-based construction materials is a natural one.

We’re also seeing a low rise in the use of collaborative robots for AM. Though the number of companies making public use of it is quite minor, we can only imagine that, with the rapid increase of industrial robotic arms for material extrusion and wire arc additive manufacturing, there’s no doubt that they will be ultimately integrated into a factory or collaborative environment.

So far, AMBOTS is one of the few businesses showcasing the use of collaborative robots for 3D printing combined with broader manufacturing techniques. Another is Divergent Technologies, whose manufacturing cells have not been shown publicly, but which rely on industrial robotic arms to assemble complex parts 3D printed with 12-laser NXGXII metal 3D printers from SLM Solutions. This project will be a chance for AMBOTS to demonstrate its technology with large-scale robots.

Construction 3D Printing for Infrastructure Resilience

Finally, though not necessarily tied to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law or the AM Forward initiative from the Biden Administration, the use of AC for disaster relief is something that we anticipated early on in discussions of a potential infrastructure bill. As global warming leads to more extreme weather incidents, the need to rapidly respond to such situations will also increase.

In this case, one can easily imagine the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deploying a shipping container filled with industrial robotic arms capable of 3D printing concrete made with local materials to a disaster site to repair a levy broken by a hurricane in Houston or to shore up a shoreline amid rising sea levels off the coast of Boston. The same technology could be used in conflict areas overseas to construct bases on rough terrain.

By that point, the programming developed by AMBOTS could port over to other robotics that might be required on-site, such as materials transportation or mobile patrol units. In fact, the startup could even build new robots at the location, depending on the needs of the engineering team. After all, one of its prior projects saw a swarm of robots build a vehicle that then drove off of the mini-factory floor.

AC is poised to be an ideal technology for repairing or making resilient infrastructure at critical points across a municipality. As 3DPrint.com Macro Analyst Matt Kremenetsky has pointed out, the Department of Defense is becoming the division responsible for managing projects related to reinforcing the supply chain, which is an umbrella concept that will include climate resilience.

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