According to an article that appeared on the China Morning Post, a pay-to-access online newspaper, China is using AI and 3D printing to build a 590-foot-tall dam in just 2 years (by 2024) and without the need for human workers. However, the 3D printing method described is as “additive” as any other construction method (even building a house brick by brick, one layer at a time, can be considered “additive”) and it stands out mostly because it is intended to be fully automated, with minimal human labor or no human worker at all. The Yangqu dam, which the China Morning Post and several other online media outlets have referenced, is in operation since 2016 and the new project is likely to be an expansion of the existing hydropower plant.
The China Morning Post article does also reference a paper titled “3D printing of large filled construction projects“, published by Tsinghua University researchers. The paper describes a 3D printing system using intelligence robots for rapid, efficient filling of large construction projects. The 3D printing system includes a construction scheduling system and a 3D assembly line that uses artificial intelligence-powered robots. The 3D scheduling system cuts the 3D digital design model into slices to calculate the filling material information and then plans the transport roads on the site map model for each step in the construction process.
The construction robots collect the fill materials when needed and transport the fill materials with intelligent paving and rolling of the fill materials. Once each construction layer is finished, the robots send construction state information to the scheduling system. The complete filling process is then printed step by step under the control of the 3D printing scheduling system.
In other words, China is using artificial intelligence to effectively turn the dam project on the Tibetan Plateau into the world’s largest 3D printer. The 180-meter (590 feet) high Yangqu dam hydropower plant will be built slice by slice – using unmanned excavators, trucks, bulldozers, pavers, and rollers, all controlled by AI – in the same additive manufacturing process used in 3D printing.
While there may be not so much a river but an ocean between theoretical paper and practical implementation, China has been able to achieve the impossible before. If the project succeeds, when completed in 2024, the Yangqu dam will send nearly 5 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year from the upper reaches of the Yellow River to Henan, the cradle of Chinese civilization and home to 100 million people.