Over the years 3D printing has had a steady rise to fame. In its infancy during the 1980s and early 1990s the potential was there; designers could prototype their designs and print 3D models out of digital data. However, back then materials were limited and machines for production were both expensive to manufacture and maintain.
Then came the adolescent years of the late 1990s, when the first 3D printed organ was successfully implanted into a human body. Then throughout the 2000s 3D printing evolved emphatically impacting the medical industry as 3D printed prosthetics limbs, fully functioning organs, and the bioprinting of organic cells became a reality.
Since then, this technology has matured, coming into its prime in the here and now as researchers, scientists, designers and artists, have pushed the potential of this high-tech printing technique. 3D printing now pervades industries from aeronautics to space travel and helps provide new habitats for coral polyps as well as new homes for humans.
This revolution has been made possible because the range of materials available for 3D printing is now wide-ranging, including obvious plastic based materials as well as living tissue, gold, silver and even concrete for the assembly of larger structures.
In fact, it is the progress and fine-tuning of techniques required for 3D printing concrete that has caused a stir inside the construction industry as developers, designers, and architects alike have had their appetite whetted by the potential 3D printing offers. In recent times, affordable housing and solutions for urban infrastructure have manifested in reality as housing and building initiatives in the Netherlands have started producing homes and other structures such as bridges.
Now, further pioneering techniques using 3D printing for construction can be found across the Atlantic in Austin, Texas. There, Austin based construction company ICON printed a hyper-modern welcome center in just over 24 hours-time as part of a site that rehouses the homeless.
Since unveiling their prototype at South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Texas, ICON recently revealed the first commercially available construction printer named, Vulcan II. At the heart of the company’s mission statement are three features; affordability, sustainability, and availability, ICON want to create more shelter for those who need it most. The 3D printed homes they are building can be printed in less than 48 hours at costs of around 10,000USD.
Compare this to the average time and cost of the average home using current construction methods – around 150,000USD – and you can see how their vision could soon become reality. What’s more is that it is already known the amount of material involved in the process of 3D printing for construction is significantly less as wastage is minimized, which makes this technique a smart and more sustainable choice for industry. This attribute of greater sustainability is a welcome one, not just in the construction industry, but as part of the wider planetary system as humanity seeks new solutions to deal with the current climate crisis.
Vulcan II technology is innovative not just because it is sustainable and commercially viable but also due to the fact it has a very real impact on 3D printing construction techniques. Equipped with adjustable width for an expanded printing footprint of 2000 square-feet means Vulcan II can accommodate a wide-range of slab sizes needed for constructing a building.
The complete system can be installed and operated by a team of just 4-6 people and includes an integrated tablet-based system for remote control of operations. This state-of-the-art approach allows for floor-plans to be visualized before printing so any adjustments can be made as necessary, then final floor-plans can be generated directly. Furthermore, ICON has made use of other advanced technologies for the Vulcan II system that will eventually enable machine-learning as real-time data is captured. These dynamic factors will allow the company to continually develop and evolve their processes for next-generation construction methods.
The commitment ICON has to creating new, sustainable, and affordable housing is demonstrated in its involvement with printing the world’s first 3D printed neighborhood in Latin America as well as collaborating with Mobile Loaves and Fishes (ML&F) on the Austin site. The overall goal of the project, known as Community First! Village, in Austin, is to eventually have over 500 homes across an area of 20 hectares. These homes will provide residence to those who have suffered from long-term homelessness and the site will also include a community cinema, organic farm, woodworking shop and community market amongst other small-scale community driven projects. Evan Loomis, co-founder of ICON, calls The Community First! Village, “One of the most innovative organizations.” ICON, who has already provided the welcome center, will join the project at Phase II adding six of their 3D printed designs to the estate.
For the Community First! Village scheme, ICON worked with Logan Architecture, another Texas-based firm, for the drawing up of plans and blueprints. ICON will use these plans to print three of these homes at the same time so to draw attention to the proficiency and cost-effectiveness of their 3D printing technology. The long-term goal of ICON is for their Vulcan II technology to be rolled-out throughout the construction industry.
The idea is that with many robotic machines out in the wild, these machines can at scale develop housing for many many people.
Alex Le Roux, Co-founder, ICON
With 3D printing continually providing encouraging and state-of-the-art developments to a wide range of applications it seems it is starting to fulfil its promise in the construction industry. With more exciting news and progress expected in the time ahead from this technology, it helps provide a positive outlook for the future considering this technology has had a positive impact not just on medicine but now potentially the environment.
In a time when there is persistent concern for the climate and the impact of human endeavors on the planet, this could help the construction and concrete industry curb its large output of carbon emissions. Not to mention providing a secure and sustainable environment for many more people, around the world.