Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Roads Must Roll! (….out of the 3-D printer)

While Elon Musk’s Hyperloop has gotten all the buzz lately, a much more obscure announcement may turn out to be a bigger deal.
MIT scientists have announced (link here) that they have engineered a way to have 3-D printers make small pieces of composite materials that lock together to form very large structures.  (OK, I know this doesn’t sound exciting yet…be patient.)
So, as the press release notes, composite fiber materials are light and strong and are ideal for building things like airplanes.  But with current technology, the large pieces (like airplane fuselage elements) need to be formed all at once to have full structural integrity.  Using little interlocking bits, like kids’ building set pieces, you can make really large pieces out of thousands of little ones.  The MIT folks have figured out how to “lock” the little pieces in a way that they have great structural stability in the desired directions, but can be flexible in other desired directions and even disassembled for repair.  They are now working on robotic production techniques to produce and link up the little building blocks.
The MIT scientists suggest that aircraft construction is an obvious application, but the idea could also work for bridges.
Bridges!  And if bridges, why not roads? 
Imagine a “paving” machine consisting of a large-scale 3-D printer ejecting and linking millions of composite “paving stones” along a roadbed.

It’s now been 101 years since Edison put down his Concrete Mile in Warren County, New Jersey, demonstrating the practicability of concrete paving.  Maybe it’s time for a “3-D Printed Mile!”

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