From hearing aids to organs to food, cutting edge 3D printing technology is changing production methods all over the world. It is also set to make a huge impact in construction. Considering the average two bedroom home in the UK takes 6 months to build, the demand for a more streamlined process has never been higher. But is a 3D-printed home realistic or are there insurmountable hurdles to this being commonplace?
The benefits of a 3D-printed home are obvious. Using this method, houses could be created in days rather than months from layers of printed material. This raw material could be shipped for much lower cost, since it would be of a standard shape and size.
Originally, prototypes were printed piecemeal elsewhere, and the parts would be shipped to the location to be assembled on-site. Advances last year showed that using a mobile printer would be equally effective, and would allow for even shorter building times.
“When I first thought about creating my machine the world has already knew about the construction 3D printing. But all printers created before shared one thing in common – they were portal type. I am sure that such a design doesn’t have a future due to its bulkiness. So I took care of this limitation and decided to upgrade a construction crane design.”
Proponents of 3D printing often claim that it is an environmentally friendly method of production, in that materials can be sustainably manufactured from recyclable materials. However, there are pitfalls. Chief among these is the power demands of 3D printers, especially ones of the size required to construct buildings. Their electricity needs are so great that the gains from lower transport costs are negligible in comparison. A secondary consideration has to be the price and construction of the printer itself. The printer prototype used by a Chinese company in 2014 to build homes on the move cost over $3m to develop.
The key to making 3D printing more sustainable is reducing the run time, and doing larger print runs. If homes are printed, you need to print 100 homes, and you need to do it fast.
However, the same methods that could make 3D printing viable are the same reasons to be concerned. In theory, mass-homebuilding could saturate the market, driving down prices and damaging an industry. Even with current building methods, housebuilders are allegedly restricting the supply of new homes in order to maintain profit margins.
The idea of a 3D printer being able to produce the same number of homes in a week as conventional building manages in 30 weeks is a drastic change by any measure. It has the potential to make thousands of people unemployed, including those further down the chain in material resources.
A brand new estate, constructed practically overnight, would also cause potential havoc to local infrastructure. Local businesses would be slow to catch up with demand, with no sense of how many homes would actually sell in a given area. Again, the balance between 3D printing’s sustainability and its impact is difficult to fathom with the current restrictions of the technology. It may be that despite impressive advances, mass 3D printed homes are still a little ways off.