Why you should care
While Washington debates a ban on 3D-printed guns, others are using the same technology to help rebuild lives.
From a distance, the concrete house in Milan resembles many other modern European designs — the exterior is bright white, and green plants sprout from the rooftop. Upon closer inspection, though, you’ll notice the perfectly straight lines etched in the building material throughout: The entire house was 3D printed. And while this particular model is a prototype, it’s one example of a revolution playing out worldwide, from the Netherlands to Nantes, France; El Salvador to Estonia; and Moscow to — if NASA has its way — even Mars.
While Washington debates a ban on 3D-printed guns, others are using the technology to help rebuild lives. Faced with a crippling housing crisis globally, an emerging set of companies and nonprofits is developing 3D-printing technology that can produce ready-to-use construction materials to build houses faster and often at lower costs than by conventional methods.
The Dutch city of Eindhoven, for example, is preparing to build and rent its first 3D-printed houses in 2019. In July, a family in Nantes became the first in the world to move into a 3D-printed house. In February 2017, American startup Apis Cor built a 3D-printed house on the outskirts of Moscow in just 24 hours; the company has since received at least $6 million in private equity funding. And the Estonian University of Life Sciences and the University of Tartu are developing a new 3D-printed concrete that can help build energy-efficient homes.
In the United States, companies like Markforged and Desktop Metal are manufacturing metal 3D printers that produce construction materials, auto parts and electronics. Tech company Icon has partnered with nonprofit New Story to build 600- to 800-square-foot homes in some of the poorest parts of the world, like El Salvador and Haiti, using a specially designed 3D printer. NASA is going one step further, seeking designs to build 3D houses on Mars.
Globally, there are about 65 startups working on 3D-printed housing, according to the Boston Consulting Group, three times the number in 2013. The firm estimates that by the start of this year, there were already nearly 40 fully realized prototypes of 3D-printed houses. Governments are also turning to the technology. The United Arab Emirates aims for 25 percent of new buildings to be 3D printed by 2030. And the U.S. Department of Defense is exploring the possibility of printing military barracks for its personnel stationed across the world.
We want any housing organization … to take this technology and do their work more efficiently.
Alexandria Lafci, co-founder, New Story
Not everyone is convinced that 3D printing is the solution the world needs to address its housing crisis. But the scale of the challenge and society’s failure to address it thus far add to the allure of the prospect of quickly built houses. The U.S. housing market alone is short by 7.3 million residential units. By the end of 2017, the world had 40 million internally displaced people — 13 million of them in Africa — forced to flee their homes because of war, famine or both. Meanwhile, the sale of metal 3D printers rose by 80 percent globally, from 983 in 2016 to 1,768 in 2017, according to an annual report by 3D-printing experts Wohlers Associates. The technology can build a house in a day for $4,000. To the companies making these machines, and the groups using them, this technology is integral to the future of housing.
“We want to make sure there’s innovation in the nonprofit world [too],” says Alexandria Lafci, co-founder of New Story. “We want any housing organization, particularly governmental housing, to take this technology and do their work more efficiently.”
That efficiency can change industries, and in particular, assist the construction sector and automobile and electronic manufacturers, says Jonah Myerberg, chief technology officer of Desktop Metal. One of the company’s printers, the Production System, combines powder spreaders and a print unit to build metal parts in several minutes instead of hours. It moves 100 times faster than current laser-based metal methods and costs up to 20 times less. Myerberg says the automotive industry will be significantly influenced by metal 3D printing over the next few years, specifically with the dissemination of electric cars.
Markforged has engineered eight printers since 2013 that use aluminum, stainless steel and titanium, and the company was the first to 3D-print using carbon fiber. Its atomic diffusion additive manufacturing technology allows manufacturers to print replacements for cast parts on demand. Like Myerberg, Greg Mark, CEO and co-founder of Markforged, agrees this is a game-changer for auto parts manufacturing. When lightweight parts are created faster, the entire car is more efficient. “Tesla, for example, is trying to make new industrial-strength parts and 3D printing can make those parts faster,” says Mark.
But it’s in construction that additive manufacturing — as 3D printing is also called — is already transforming entire communities. Between 2014 and 2017, New Story built more than 1,300 homes in rural Haiti, El Salvador, Bolivia and Mexico. But last year the nonprofit realized that even its fastest methods of construction couldn’t keep up with demand. That’s when it partnered with Icon to design a 3D printer. The result of the collaboration is the Vulcan, a machine that prints quick-drying concrete to create homes with two bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. Lafci is confident that 3D printing will play an important role in the future of construction, but she’s also aware of the challenges in getting people to adapt to the technology, especially in the U.S. “Cultural adaptation is one of the biggest hurdles,” she says.
And Lafci is right. Minka is a company that designs and constructs small houses for the elderly as an alternative to nursing homes. Kavan Peterson, Minka’s chief operating officer, thinks 3D-printed houses have significant potential but worries about scalability. “There is a lot of hype,” Peterson says. “Each 3D printer can only ever build one home at time, so it’s a question of how quickly they can build and deploy the 3D printers,” he says. The Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York is also cautious about the role of 3D printing in construction and manufacturing. “New technologies come and go, but there will always be a need for the well-trained and highly skilled unionized construction workers in New York City,” says Gary LaBarbera, president of the union, which represents more than 100,000 workers.
But Desktop Metal’s Myerberg doesn’t view 3D printing as a replacement for manual labor. “We’re not trying to, nor do we think this will, offset traditional manufacturing,” he says; instead it will be “complementary.” And revolutionary.