The idea of printing buildings has rapidly evolved from a way to demonstrate novel approaches to construction to the arrival of a few real businesses making a go at the construction market. In recent blogs, we’ve reported on some of the different ways 3D printing is increasing in scale. The technology is undergoing an inverse of Moore’s law in computing, where transistor density doubled every 2 years, making computing cheaper and smaller. In 3D printing, the platforms are going mobile and getting flexible, enabling larger and larger structures to be built. At the same time, 3D printing is getting cheaper, too, with entry-level printers available for under $1,000 at stores like Home Depot.
Chinese company WinSun, which last year printed 10 small houses in under 24 hours, recently completed printing (and assembling) a five-story apartment building in Shanghai. Like WinSun’s other printed buildings, this 12,000 SF building is printed from a slurry of concretes and recycled materials, like steel and glass.
Printed buildings could lower the cost of materials (if local or recycled materials can be used), speed up construction, make customized homes easier and cheaper to build, and generate much less waste in the construction process. WinSun claims that its technology can reduce construction (or, rather, assembly) time by half, reduce the volume of materials by 60%, and lower labor costs by up to 80%. (It should be noted that these estimates are for construction in China and are just for the shell of a building, not full delivery, other than internal walls and staircases.)
Other companies are moving forward with advances in printing buildings. Dutch company CyBe Additive Industries has developed a proprietary concrete slurry. Slovenian company BetAbram aims to develop scaffolds for printing, and Oakland, California- based Emerging Objects is working on materials design technology that can make new forms with novel properties. Contour Crafting, founded by a University of Southern California professor, touts 3D printing as a solution for emergency or low-income housing in the developing world.
Perhaps the most promising demonstration is the 3D Print Canal House, a system of printing modules of buildings that can be assembled onsite. This has advantages above the mortar-and-mortar (instead of brick-and-mortar) method of material extrusion, namely the ability perform quality control upon assembly and to meet local building codes that address structural integrity.
A key advantage of printed structures is the ability to tailor a building space’s functions to its inhabitants. Portending the future of tailored space, Voxel8, using Autodesk’s Spark, has unveiled a small desktop printer that can print electronics directly into 3D printed materials. The user swaps out the plastic ink with metal conducting wire (or light-emitting diodes [LEDs]), which the printer lays down. Then the plastic ink is reinserted, and the printer embeds the wires and electronics within the structure.
Extending this idea into the building space, one can envision a prefabricated wall, pre-wired with alternating current (AC) (or direct current [DC]) cable, networks such as Ethernet cable, and sensors. Using this approach, buildings could be built with plug-and-play walls and rooms, printed onsite to the customers’ specifications.
That will require a series of advances. And the concept of plug-and-play would work only if the electronics in a building were truly interoperable, as described in Navigant Research’s recent Commercial Building Automation Systems report. Project Haystack, an open-source initiative developed to streamline the names and functions in buildings systems, could play an important role in this printed, modular, infinitely customizable future.