The Chinese have proposed to build a water dam using a 3D printer. Engineers want to use robots to build this dam on one of the rivers.
A study recently published by a team of researchers from Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, shows that plans to build a water dam 181 meters high using robots, 3D printing technology and artificial intelligence have been presented. Researchers claim that there is no need to directly use human power in the construction of this huge structure. If this plan goes ahead, this dam can produce 5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually. This amount of energy will be enough to provide electricity for 50 million homes in China.
The Yangko Dam is located on the second largest river in China, called the Yellow River, which flows through Jinghai Province in the Tibetan Plateau. There is currently a dam on this river and the proposed plan involves enlarging the existing structure and increasing its power generation capacity, which will make this dam one of the largest dams in the world. If all goes according to plan, the Yangko Dam will become the largest 3D-printed structure built by artificial intelligence.
3D printing without a printer!
Construction-scale 3D printing technology involves the use of giant 3D printers to produce the concrete layers that make up the structure. In contrast, Tsinghua University researchers have developed a method that allows them to 3D print concrete without a printer. They plan to use an additive manufacturing approach that uses a computer programming system to create the 3D structure. The device will use artificial intelligence-controlled robots instead of a large 3D printer to build the Yangko Dam structure.
Based on this research, the programmed system uses the dam design model to determine the amount of materials needed to build a specific section of the hydro dam. Construction robots assigned to this section collect the filling material and discharge it at the desired point. Finally, they perform a smart construction process to turn the material into a 3D printed layer. Repeating this process creates several layers that finally complete this part of the structure.
The construction stages of the Yangko water dam with 3D printer and robots
When each construction layer is finished, the robots send construction status information to the scheduling system. Then the filling process is printed step by step under the control of the 3D printing planning system. During the manufacturing process, each robot acts as labor and as input to the scheduling system. All in all, the robots will act as a giant 3D printer.
This unique approach can provide significant savings in time and resources, enabling the construction of multiple sections of the Yangkoo Dam at the same time without the need for a bulky 3D printer that may require constant human assistance. Yang Ko Dam will be put into operation by 2024, that is, less than two years from now. Meanwhile, the construction process of two of the world’s largest man-made dams, the Oroville Dam in the United States of America and the Three Valleys Dam in China, took 7 and 9 years, respectively.
Is this great idea practical?
The construction of the Yangkou Dam is not the first idea for additive manufacturing proposed by Tsinghua University researchers. In 2021, another team of scientists led the development of a 3D-printed retractable bridge in Shanghai. This 9-meter bridge is controlled via Bluetooth and can be fully opened in less than 60 seconds. This team also built a library building and a 26-meter-long stilt bridge using 3D printing. Considering these successes, it is likely that this group’s new idea to build a large water dam using 3D printing will also go well.
However, problems may arise when 3D printing is combined with artificial intelligence and robots, as is planned for the Yangkoo Dam project. Building a huge structure like the Yangko Dam generally requires hundreds of manpower and many workers, and the widespread use of artificial intelligence-equipped robots can eliminate these human jobs.
Skilled workers make up almost 30% of the total labor force in China. Therefore, automation methods can threaten the livelihood of a large population in this country. Safety is also very important for building dams of this size and we still have no experience in evaluating the output quality of such processes.
On the other hand, 3D printing has several advantages over traditional construction methods. For example, a tiny house that might take you months to build can be 3D printed in 24 hours and at a much lower budget. NASA even has plans to use 3D printing to build human-friendly structures on the moon.
In any case, the approach presented in this paper has the potential to provide humans with more options for future construction by getting rid of 3D printers.