China is going to 3D print a hydroelectric dam within span of 2 years

The project seems crazy. A new dam will be built on the Tibetan plateau without using any human labor. The construction will be entirely supported by machines controlled by artificial intelligence, which will erect the structure layer by layer, using the same process as a 3D print. Once completed, the Yangqu Hydroelectric Power Station will supply nearly 5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity to east-central China's Henan Province annually.

"The largest 3D printer in the world", it is in these terms that the scientists involved in the project evoke this 180 meter high structure, located on the banks of the Yellow River. No human employees will be present on the construction site: all construction machinery (excavators, trucks, bulldozers, rollers, etc.) will all be unmanned and controlled by artificial intelligence. The plant, which is expected to be completed in 2024, will supply electricity to the entire Henan province, some 100 million people.

China currently occupies first place in the ranking of hydroelectricity producing countries: its power stations represent nearly 31% of the hydroelectricity produced in the world and 17% of the country's electricity production. The Three Gorges Dam power station, located on the Yangtze River in Hubei Province, central China, is the most powerful in the world. In 2021, it generated 103.6 billion kWh of electricity, according to operating company 'China Three Gorges Corporation'. The Yangqu plant will not be as productive, but is distinguished by its particularly innovative method of construction.

A completely autonomous construction project

This unique project was presented in the newspaper of Tsinghua University, which is responsible for carrying it out. The article mentions “a 3D printing system using intelligent robots for the rapid and efficient filling of large construction projects”. This system includes a construction planning device and an assembly line. The planning system is responsible for slicing the digital design model into layers to calculate infill material data, and then planning haul routes for each stage of the construction process.

Construction robots will collect fill materials when needed and transport them through a smart paving and rolling system. The machines will be equipped with sensors to verify that the structure acquires the necessary solidity. After each layer is completed, the robots will send construction status information to the planning system; the process will repeat like this until the dam is complete. Details of the manufacturing process have not been released by the scientists.

Note that China is far from new to this: the largest 3D printed pavilion in the world and the first 3D printed retractable bridge were both built in China. The latter, just over nine meters long, is located in Wisdom Bay Park in Shanghai. The district is also well known for promoting this technology: in addition to a museum dedicated to 3D printing and several companies in the sector, it is also home to one of the longest 3D printed bridges in China, 26 meters long on 3.5 meters wide.

Nevertheless, these additive manufacturing projects have always involved human workers during their construction. With this 100% autonomous dam project, China is taking a new step: it is the first demonstration combining 3D printing and artificial intelligence in the field of construction. The objective being, according to those responsible for the project, to free humans from heavy, repetitive and dangerous work. This approach also eliminates human error (for example when the compactor roller operators do not keep a perfect straight line), but above all, allows the site to operate 24 hours a day, without interruption.

The largest 3D construction in the world

With its 180 meters in height, this hydroelectric dam will become the largest installation in the world printed in 3D. The record so far is held by a two-storey office building, 9.5 meters high, built in Dubai in 2020: 640 m² of office space has been erected by a single printer, accompanied by three employees responsible for controlling the works. Mohamed Al Gergawi, Minister of Cabinet Affairs of the United Arab Emirates, announced at the inauguration that by 2030, a quarter of constructions would be carried out with this technique, which he considers 50% faster and half the cost. .

According to Scott Santens, a universal basic income advocate in the United States, his country would not consider carrying out such a project, because it considers job creation to be the best solution to poverty. “The United States will never undertake such a project (at least not before having adopted the universal basic income). Why? Because we worship creating jobs instead of believing that the purpose of work like this is to do it, not to employ people in the process,” he said on his Twitter account.

The replacement of human labor with advanced technologies is a long-standing debate. But with this large-scale project, one can also wonder about the priorities of the Chinese government, which in the face of an outbreak of COVID-19 cases - to which are added major logistical problems and food shortages - is not not able to ensure the supply of the inhabitants of Shanghai cloistered at home for weeks.

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