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Could drones be used to install insulation in the future?

In recent years, 3D printing has become increasingly mainstream and the technology is being used in a growing number of applications - from medical devices to fashion accessories, automotive parts, toys and smartphone cases.

And it seems that the construction industry may also soon be able to use 3D printing. Architects and structural engineers have recently started experimenting with the technology.

There are a number of ways that 3D printing could be used in construction - for example, it allows for complex shapes to be created that would not be possible with standard building techniques. Plus, the technology also has a number of other benefits. For example, it can help to reduce waste and new combinations of materials can be used - powdered gypsum, metal powder or polymers can be combined to create complete objects.

While building complicated structures with 3D printing isn't possible yet, there's no reason that, in the near future, existing structures could be built or modified using the technology - it's even possible that entire buildings could be printed - including plumbing, pipework, thermal insulation and wiring already in place. Just like a 2D printer can combine ink colours, a 3D printer can combine various materials to create a finished product.

One issue that must be considered, however is the size constraints of current 3D printers. The machines in use today are mainly used for creating smaller objects and components. However, engineers and architects are working on this too.

For example, engineering firm Arup has created a 3D printing process that joins steel tubes together. This process only uses a quarter of the material used in the standard method. Moving robotic printing arms are another option being considered, while some firms are working on enormous 3D printers that can create building panels that can be assembled on site.

Another theory is that flying drones could be equipped with 3D printing technology. The machines could fly around, building entire structures, carrying out repairs or refurbishing properties with new external wall insulation, for example.

Of course, there are plenty of issues that still need to be worked out. Paul Shepherd, lecturer in digital architectronics at the University of Bath, notes that the materials traditionally used for constructing buildings and 3D printing have certain properties that don't always overlap, while more testing is needed to fully understand the structural strength of 3D printed objects.