Navigant Research Blog

In China, 3D Printing Produces a Village

Noah Goldstein — April 24, 2014

My earlier blog on 3D printing showed how the process will influence the building industry.  In this blog, I’ll report on significant news from China in this field and describe how 3D printing for the consumer market is quickly evolving, changing the prototyping and product development process.

Earlier this month, the Chinese company WinSun Decoration Design Engineering Co. printed 10 small houses in just 24 hours.  This is astonishing, especially given the simple approach and cheap cost of these homes.  While most 3D printing uses plastic polymers, the WinSun project used a slurry of construction waste, cement, and industrial waste deposited on a simple wireframe mesh to construct the walls.  According to an article in The Architect’s Newspaper, each structure cost less than $5,000 in materials.  These buildings are more like the prefab wooden frame construction that has gained traction of late than the 3D-printed buildings mentioned in my previous blog that are currently in production (in print?) in Amsterdam.

Regardless of how much manual labor was needed to build the Chinese village, there are two significant implications.  First, if these structures can be built at a low cost, with minimal assembly and local and sustainable materials, then the future of local housing in the developing world could change very quickly.  Post-disaster housing, long-needed manufacturing facilities, and basic buildings like schools or health clinics could simply be printed with durable materials – and very quickly.  Second, both the printed Chinese village and the 3D Print Canal House in Amsterdam could be designed and printed for optimal energy efficiency based on the characteristics of the locale – not just the state or federal building code.  While a market for these novel approaches has yet to coalesce, the investments in 3D printing from governments and startups around the world will help that market form.

Printing Made Easy

Creating prototypes is a long-used practice in manufacturing, engineering, and design.  The ability to touch and feel a physical 3D object can lend insight into its function and consumer response.  As 3D printers are dropping in price and size, the use of the technology for product prototyping has been growing.  Makerspaces are popping up in major cities around the United States, providing customers with the tools and equipment to print their computer-aided design (CAD) projects for a fee.  Some of these have been funded by local governments and some by local entrepreneurs.  Others are being funded by corporations looking to engage university students and local entrepreneurs.  Last week, General Electric (GE) launched its FirstBuild center, making 3D printing available to local University of Louisville, Kentucky students and faculty.  Students and local entrepreneurs will have access to top-of-the-line 3D printers and CAD software to design and prototype their appliance-related ideas.  This approach highlights the importance of easy prototyping, as well as GE’s commitment to innovation in design for the consumer and building markets.

Meanwhile, local 3D printing is becoming more accessible.  Taking the approach that it is just a different kind of printing, Staples has jumped into the 3D printing game.  While Staples already sells 3D printers and supplies, it recently launched its My Easy 3D service, where customers can upload CAD designs to create their own prototypes.  With the opening of these modern print shops, entrepreneurs and designers can quickly and inexpensively prototype their ideas.  It will be interesting to see how access to easy prototyping will change design and manufacturing, not just in the built environment, but also in our consumer-oriented economy.

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