Navigant Research Blog

3D Printing Providing a Boost to Building Energy Efficiency

— June 29, 2016

ManufacturingAdditive manufacturing has shown significant potential toward reducing manufacturing energy consumption and material waste. While these techniques are still evolving, the creation of objects with 3D printing, using computer models and depositing materials layer by layer into a predefined pattern, has the potential to revolutionize manufacturing. An article from Energy Policy estimates that 3D printing can provide cost savings of nearly $593 billion from energy and material savings. The applications for 3D printing span from the creation of medical devices to objects as large as wind turbine blades. In addition to saving energy and materials used in traditional manufacturing processes, 3D printing also has the ability to improve the performance of mechanical systems.

The Heat Exchanger

As its name implies, a heat exchanger is literally used to transfer heat from one source to another. For many decades, it has been a critical component in power generating stations, chemical plants, engines, refrigeration systems, and  facility heating or cooling systems. Heat exchangers have an impact in every industry, but despite its wide range of uses, the technology has seen minimal improvement or change for many years.

3D Printed Heat Exchangers

Recently, the University of Maryland used 3D printing technology to manufacture an innovative air to refrigerant heat exchanger in a single piece. The heat exchanger weighs 20% less and performs 20% more efficiently compared to traditional heat exchangers, while also being manufactured in much less time. The single-piece heat exchanger is constructed to be more resistant to pressure or leakage. From the perspective of building energy consumption, heating and cooling accounts for nearly 50% of energy costs. A 20% increase in effectiveness for heat exchangers, which act as both the evaporator and condenser in heating and cooling cycles, is a substantial improvement toward reducing building energy consumption. The University of Maryland estimates that the product has the potential to save nearly 7 quads of energy, or roughly the equivalent to 252 million tons of coal.

As 3D printing technology continues to evolve, game-changing techniques will lead to products that not only require less material, energy, and time to produce, but that also operate with effectiveness that was previously unattainable with traditional manufacturing processes.


Toward 3D Printed, Pre-Wired Buildings

— March 9, 2015

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.)

Assembled Onsite

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.

Infinitely Malleable

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.


With 3D Technology, You Can Print Your Ride

— September 29, 2014

At the recent International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago, a car was printed in just 44 hours.  A sporty-looking black coupe, the Strati was built using a large-scale printer known as a Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) system.  A BAAM can build products that reach up to 8 feet in length, as opposed to the 1-foot dimension now available from desktop commercial 3D printers or at your nearby UPS Store.  Printing the body of the car in carbon-reinforced ABS plastic live at the conference, the demonstrators showed the utility of 3D printing for industrial and commercial products.  Not that cars can or will be mass printed anytime soon, but the cost and time in the engineering design process, from concept to design to prototype, can be reduced for high-end industrial products.  The likelihood of seeing a Strati roll down your street anytime soon is very, very small.  Perhaps if the Strati was printed with carbon fiber or other strong materials from new arrival MarkForged, coming across one in public would be more likely.

The use of 3D printing in the automotive industry is increasing, even though automakers have been using advanced manufacturing for decades.   Ford has used 3D printing for testing axles, brake rotors, and cylinder heads.   General Motors (GM) recently highlighted the use of 3D printing to prototype parts for the 2014 Chevy Malibu, both inside and out.  At GM’s Rapid Prototyping lab, the front end was redesigned, printed, and tested for aerodynamics in the wind tunnel, cutting costs and saving time.  Inside the car, designers are using 3D printing to test the visual look and accessibility of parts like internal trim and seat-back panels.  Yet, it took an act of nature for GM to make waves in the 3D printing world.  In early September, a rainstorm caused flooding in GM’s Rapid Prototyping facility in Detroit, Michigan, ruining equipment.  As a result, GM purchased over $6 million worth of 3D Systems products, including the iPro 8000 Stereolithography printer.  In the small 3D printing world, this is large, as it validates the value of the small form factor 3D printer.

Auto API

Other manufacturers are showcasing the use of 3D printing.  A scaled-down version of Toyota’s FT-1 concept car, presented in April at the New York International Auto Show, now seems like old news.  At first glance, the same appears true for Honda printing 3D versions of its concept cars.  Yet, Honda is going one step further by making the printing plans (the computer-aided design [CAD] files) available for free download, in the hopes that fans will print their own designs, creating a new kind of conversation between designers and consumers.

The most interesting deployments of 3D printing in cars are still in the concept stage.   As part of his master’s thesis at the Umea Institute of Design in Sweden, Erik Melldahl worked with BMW to design the Maasaica, an off-road coupe designed for rural Africans.  Printed from a biodegradable material composed of mycelium mushrooms and grass, the material can be grown in a number of days.  The car would collect ambient water for cooling and local uses, and it would be connected to the Internet.  Melldahl’s bushmobile highlights how 3D printing is changing industry – by enabling the redefinition of what a car is, how it’s made, and how it interacts with its environment and its users.


In China, 3D Printing Produces a Village

— 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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