3D printing has been around since the 1980’s, but in the last few years the technology has become much more affordable and accessible. Many are now speculating on the ways 3D printing could revolutionize the global manufacturing landscape. But could the technology have a similar disruptive impact on how buildings are constructed? Innovators and entrepreneurs across the globe are already trying to find out.
Last week, a Chinese company demonstrated the capabilities of a giant house-building 3D printer it has been researching for 10 years. The machine has the capacity to construct 10 houses in less than 24 hours, using predominantly recycled materials. The homes cost less than $5,000 to build, which means the technology could have a huge impact on improving housing conditions in the country. Despite rampant skyscraper construction in major cities across China, the country still has a massive need for quick, cheap housing, particularly outside of the major urban areas.
Rather than printing the homes in one go, Winsun’s 3D printer creates building blocks by layering up a cement/glass mix in structural patterns (watch the process here). The diagonally reinforced print pattern leaves air gaps to act as insulation. The blocks are printed in a central factory and then assembled on site, with comparatively little labor required.
Back in the U.S., a University of Southern California professor is testing its own giant 3D printer. Unlike the Chinese technology, this printer would complete the entire construction process on-site. Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis’s design replaces construction workers with a nozzle on a gantry that squirts out concrete and can quickly build a home according to a computer pattern. It is “basically scaling up 3D printing to the scale of building,” says Khoshnevis, who labels the technology “Contour Crafting.”
The Contour Crafting system is essentially a robot that automates age-old building tools normally used by hand. Once a site is prepared, the contour crafter system would be laid down on two parallel rails just beyond the eventual width of the building. From there, the computer-controlled system would take over, laying down concrete in layers with a gantry-type crane and a hanging nozzle. Once the frame is built, construction workers would hang doors and insert windows.
Contour Crafting could potentially slash the cost of home construction. It could also be a major help in responding to housing crises related to emergencies like natural disasters, where thousands can be left without shelter. Khoshnevis is particularly hopeful that the technology could be used to improve housing for the nearly one billion people across the globe currently living in slum conditions.
It seems that it will only be a matter of time as to when 3D printing will begin to make a major impact in building construction. As Khoshnevis points out, “if you look around you pretty much everything is made automatically these days – your shoes, your clothes, home appliances, your car. The only thing that is still built by hand are these buildings.”