Not too long ago, a couple of MIT scientists asked themselves a lofty question: "Can you 3D-print an aeroplane?" It didn't take long for them to realise that 3D-printing anything on that scale was impractical. But 3D-printing thousands of small, Lego-like building blocks? That could work.
Fast forward a few months, and Kenneth Cheung and Neil Gershenfeld have published a paper in Science detailing the new construction method. Like Lego, it takes advantage of tiny, interlocking building blocks that connect to create a larger structure. And, also like Lego, the structure can be taken apart, the blocks rearranged and reassembled into a different structure. This comes in handy in case it gets damaged or builders want to recycle the material. For convenience sake, Cheung and Gershenfeld are now designing a robot that can be used as a construction worker.
The appeal of the system is obvious, especially when it comes to building large-scale objects like aircraft or even levees. The building blocks themselves can be cheaply manufactured through 3D printing and can be reused again and again. Because they're made of a lightweight porous composite, the structures themselves are lightweight and easy to transport. Unlike current methods for building aeroplanes and spaceships, for instance, this method doesn't require the final structure to be assembled all at once in a giant hangar. You just snap the small pieces together when it's time.