Up till now, the big news for 3D printing has been about small things. 3D printers can make multipart assemblies as one piece, meaning manufacture is quicker and cheaper and there’s less to go wrong. You can 3D print new organs, or 3D print parts of a home, stick them together and then build the whole thing from prefabricated pieces. So far, in housing, 3D printing has changed things – but it’s never been a game-changer.
That Was Until Now
The latest development in 3D printing is the construction of enormous 3D printers that can print large structures as one single piece. The technology, called ‘Contour Crafting,’ is already here: test models can build 2, 500 square foot homes in about 20 hours.
The huge robot printer responsible for this feat was invented by the University of Southern California’s Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis, who says that technology is more or less infinitely versatile. We can build suburbs, clear slums – and if we can get it to mars, we can build habitats there with the same equipment.
Professor Khoshnevis says extraterrestrial applications of his invention have received interest and supportive noises from NASA, which foresees using the tech to build homes, labs and roads on Mars or the Moon.
While it might be a stretch to imagine a whole house simply printed off – and in some ways it seems to devalue the idea of a home – Professor Khoshnevis says he expects that the technology will make houses more, not less, individual: your house doesn’t ‘have to look like tract houses because all you have to do is change the computer program. The walls do not have to be linear. They can use any kind of curve. Therefore, you can really execute very exotic beautiful architectural features without incurring extra cost.’
The giant robot printer can also tile the floors, install plumbing, install electrical wiring and can even apply paint or wallpaper.
All of which sounds idyllic, and it certainly is one way the technology could be used. Over in China, meanwhile, another approach is being showcased.
In Shanghai, WingSun Decoration Engineering Design built 10 homes in Shanghai using equipment similar to the Contour Crafting gear designed by Professor Khoshnevis.
After buying parts for the machinery overseas, the company assembled them in China and used them to build 10 small, one-story houses in Shanghai in just 24 hours, a huge improvement on existing construction techniques in terms of time and money. However, there weren’t any great strides forward in architecture.
So where is 3D printing as a building technology really heading?
‘It is an interesting technology,’ opines Derrick Morris, director of construction technologies for Habitat for Humanity in an interview with online tech magazine Mashable. ‘We’ve been watching this with some interest over the past couple of years. A lot of the time, it’s more about changing the mind of the consumer.’
Rather than being rush-and-hurry cookie-cutter buildings or endlessly variable hand-Contour-Crafted creations, 3D printed houses are likely to simply become another part of the urban landscape, not totally replacing existing building technologies but getting a foothold in building skyscrapers and apartment blocks as well as suburban homes. How much control consumers will have is open to debate too: Professor Khoshnevis invites you to ‘imagine a Contour Crafting machine for lease at your local Home Depot.’