According to its semi-annual report published by the IDC (International Data Corporation) on the 8th of January 2019, 3D printing (or three-dimensional printing) industry has steadily developed over the past few years. It has gradually opened up new fields of application. What are the different 3D printers that exist today? What can these technologies offer compared to the traditional way of building houses?
There are numerous 3D printing machines existing today on the market across the globe. If most of them have proved their efficiency, they offer characteristics that distinguish them from one another.
The tallest printing machine, called BigDelta, was developed by the Italian firm Wasp, currently, the tallest in the market as it measures up to twelve meters high. It can extrude concrete with different modular arms, which, once assembled, measure up to six meters. It would be able to move a 200 kilogrammes load.
The Russian firm Apis Cor managed to develop a 3D printing machine capable of building a house within 24 hours only in extreme climatic conditions. It can be set on site within thirty minutes only. The firm has developed its software and a monitoring program to facilitate construction work. This printing technology conceived the walls of the biggest administrative building ever built in Dubaï. This latter’s surface area totals 640 m² while the machine’s height reaches ten meters, and the building process requires seventeen days for printing.
The first social housing printed with this technology was built in Nantes, France, with a machine called Batiprint 3D, developed by a team of researchers from the University of Nantes in association with a laboratory – called LS2N – dedicated to the study of sciences and digital. Batiprint 3D lays three successive layers of materials to one another: two layers of foam and a third layer constituted of concrete material. This industrial robot is mobile and polyarticulated, which enables it to operate directly on-site.
Cybe Construction is a Dutch company that launched two 3D printers in concrete material, Cybe RC 3DP and the CYBE RDP. These two machines would print at a 200 millimeters per second speed, enabling them to build concrete structures fast.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology unveiled in December 2018 its last creation in terms of a 3D printer. The American university has indeed conceived a 3D printer that was judged ten times more superior in terms of printing speed than the other printing machines existing on the market.
The interest in 3D printing in the world is thus obvious, and it can be explained by many factors. First of all, it would reduce inadequate housing in the world, by offering solutions in Third World countries, where a vast number of people are homeless or live in precarious conditions. This is the common aim of Icon, a technology construction company, and News Story, a nonprofit international organization. Both of them completed the first 3D printed house in the world.
This 350 m2 house was printed by a device appliance called Vulcan I in less than 48 hours. The cost of the printed portion was about $10,000, which is far below the average cost of a house of similar quality and size (the roof was not printed). In May 2019, Icon founders announced the construction of the first entirely 3D printed village in the world, in Tabasco, Mexico, which was completed at the end of the year. These houses are given to families whose monthly income is inferior to $200 per month below and who do not have safe housing sheltering them from environmental and physical hazards. Vulnerable people are generally the last ones to benefit from innovation: «We are convinced that technological creators, builders, and innovators can provide the poorest populations of the world with new housings that would improve their living conditions in an unprecedented speed and scale », said one of the Icon founders. He adds: « the device is designed to operate in regions which experience a shortage of manpower. 3D printing will enable the integration of elements like kitchen and bathroom worktops, seats, or shelves in the designed houses. Walls and other structural elements can be printed within only 24 hours [for a 152,4 m² surface] with nearly zero waste. Icon uses a new giant 3D printer for conceiving its houses called Vulcan II, with improved technology as it is less time-consuming than Vulcan I. It would cost about 4,500€ and can both operate in case of a breakdown or for night printing (it is equipped with a light-emitting diode bulb). Vulcan II is performed by means of intuitive handling with a tablet. As a result, only a handful of workers are necessary for printing a house. Vulcan II has extended the printing capacity on the ground to about 185 square meters. It has adjustable width to adapt different sizes of slabs and can be transported thanks to a tailored tailer without any prior assembly, and only four to six people are needed to operate it. The reason behind this is due to several improvements brought to the automation, mechatronics, and software parts. Vulcan II also has remote surveillance and possesses a series of sensors permitting fast, reliable, and precise printing. Icon’s Vulcan II printer can be described as an automatic material delivery system.
These characteristics are not the only advantages that Vulcan II, and 3D printing for houses, in general can provide in opposition to the old traditional construction of buildings: according to the Icon website, Vulcan II « has been conceived to build structures with more design freedom ». The machine used for creating houses is way more precise than human touch and allows more complexity in forms, which is an advantage in aesthetics. It is also more eco-friendly, as it generates less waste in the construction process than traditional buildings. According to Vulcan II designers, « the use of the machine enables to reduce the amount of concrete necessary to build a house, between 50 to 60 % according to the realized piece ». But it especially reduces construction costs, as there are fewer workers on the working site, thus fewer salaries to be paid. Then this will have an impact on the costs of houses to sale, which -if 3D printing becomes generalized worldwide- are likely to be much more affordable for the less well off. At last, Icon’s proven 3D-printing technology provides « safer, more resilient homes that are designed to withstand fire, flood, wind and other natural disasters better than conventionally built homes», according to its conceptors.
For all that, is the old traditional way of building homes going to disappear? « Not for the moment », according to Stephen King, a real estate agent in the U.S who promotes a printed house developed by a firm called SQ4D. « Although this system enables to eliminate numerous traditional steps in the building of a house, such as carpentry, coating or cladding and though 3D printing is responsible for 41 % of the construction work, people like plumbers, electricians or artisans will still be needed», assures King.
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