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No ordinary building block

A new composite building block system works by 3D printing X-shaped blocks which are then snapped together to form super strong constructions. Could the next high-tech airliner be a ‘LEGO’ block masterpiece? Two MIT researchers think so. 

Conventional composite materials – used in everything from tennis rackets to the Boeing 787 Dreamliner – are created as monolithic units and this poses a number of problems. Firstly, manufacturing single, large pieces of a composite material (i.e. carbon fibre or glass fibre) requires enormous machines, facilities and factories that are costly to operate. In addition, it’s difficult and costly to repair or replace any localised damage sustained by the monolithic composite pieces that are used to form, say, an airplane’s wing.

A composite building block system, developed at MIT, works by 3D printing very small blocks made of carbon fibre and epoxy resin. These X-shaped building  blocks are able to hook into each other and snap together like LEGO pieces to form objects and structures. Tests show that structures assembled with these blocks are superior in many ways to composite structures assembled out of a single, monolithic piece. Under high stress, single composite structures tend to fail quickly at a large scale, whereas a structure built of out composite blocks however is able to distribute forces more easily and tends to fail more slowly and in smaller, localised areas. So a break in one of the composite blocks is not fatal to the integrity of the structure. Not only that, any damage that is sustained can be easily repaired. Just like a set of building blocks, parts can be assembled and then taken apart to either repair a construction or create an entirely new object.

The MIT scientists are now building a robotic system to assemble these carbon fibre blocks into useful structures. The idea is that very small robots will be able to crawl over the surface of a structure adding pieces one by one, creating masterpieces from cars to cruise ships to dreamliners!

Read more about MIT’s latest invention here.