Need a building customized for a particular site quickly? Researchers say a 3D printer may be the answer — and could reduce the cost to boot.

Researcher Steven Keating and colleagues write in this week’s Science Robotics a 3D system could reduce construction costs while speeding the process, incorporating different materials and densities as the process moves forward to produce optimal combinations of strength and other properties.

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“Contemporary construction techniques are slow, labor-intensive, dangerous, expensive, and constrained to primarily rectilinear forms, often resulting in homogenous structures built using materials sourced from centralized factories,” the researchers said. Instead, they propose a digital construction platform, an “automated construction system capable of customized on-site fabrication of architectural-scale structures using real-time environmental data for process control.”

To put their platform to the test, the researchers built an open dome structure in less than 13 1/2 hours, using a tracked vehicle with a large, industrial robotic arm equipped with a smaller, precision-motion robotic arm.

Most 3D systems are confined and only can build parts that fit inside their enclosures. Keating’s system gives the platform a greater range.

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Keating said the system can be adapted to existing sites without the need to alter building codes and can be powered electrically, or even solar powered, making it ideal for use in remote areas in the developing world or for disaster relief.

Keating led development of the system as his doctoral thesis in mechanical engineering and noted the construction industry is “doing things the way it has for hundreds of years.” He told Science magazine the goal is “to have something totally autonomous, that you could send to the moon or Mars or Antarctica, and it would just go out and make these buildings for years. … We also wanted to show that we could build something tomorrow that could be used right away."

3D printers have come a long way from just making items from plastic. They now can make items from ceramic, metals and even glass. Researchers at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology have developed a method of producing glass objects by mixing nanoparticles with quartz glass and liquid polymer, reported.