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Will your next house be 3D-printed?

The ability to create, to alter the world around you while manipulating your environment, is the essence of technology. Whereas mankind once had to create new objects through industrial intermediaries (or painstakingly by hand), we are entering an exciting new age where a desired object can be “individually mass produced,” printed by 3D-printer to exact specifications. This technology stands poised to alter our world, and the objects in it, forever. But what does that mean? What are the implications?

They start with the very roof over your head. Cnet‘s Michelle Starr is reporting that the world’s first 3D-printed apartment building has been erected in China. “In March of last year, company WinSun claimed to have printed 10 houses in 24 hours,” she writes, “using a proprietary 3D printer that uses a mixture of ground construction and industrial waste, such as glass and tailings, around a base of quick-drying cement mixed with a special hardening agent.” The term claimed is very important here, as the Chinese are eager to be seen as a technological powerhouse and have, historically, been somewhat loose with the details. The embarrassing incident a few years ago, in which China’s Central Television tried to pass off footage from the movie “Top Gun” as a recording of one of its air force’s training exercises, springs readily to mind. Still, if the claim is true, the 3D-printing of entire dwellings only paints that much more clearly the place of such printers in our future.

“Although the company hasn’t revealed how large it can print pieces,” Starr goes on, “based on photographs on its website, they are quite sizable. A CAD design is used as a template, and the computer uses this to control the extruder arm to lay down the material. … The walls are printed hollow, with a zig-zagging pattern inside to provide reinforcement. This also leaves space for insulation. This process saves between 30 and 60 percent of construction waste, and can decrease production times by between 50 and 70 percent, and labor costs by between 50 and 80 percent. … [The use of] recycled materials … [decreases] the need for quarried stone and other materials – resulting in a construction method that is both environmentally forward and cost effective.”

WinSun is, according to Starr, eying the printing of such massive structures as bridges and skyscrapers. They are not alone. The Guardian’s Alastair Parvin asserts that 3D-printing of buildings could solve the current “housing crisis” – that is, supplying attractive, affordable dwellings to more people. He calls for a dramatic reform of the “land market” to “make it dramatically easier for those without much capital to buy a plot of land and commission their own homes – either individually or as a group. … Our first step might be to develop open source tools and platforms that radically simplify the process of planning, designing and constructing customized, high-performance, sustainable, low-cost homes, and to put those tools into the hands of citizens, communities and businesses. That is the aim of the WikiHouse project, an open source construction system that allows online self-build models to be shared, improved, 3D-printed and self-assembled.”

Of course, one of the barriers to entry in the 3D-printing consumer market is the cost of a 3D-printer itself – which leads, at the risk of being recursive, to the idea of printing the printer that you’ll then use to print other things. “Over 90 weekly issues of 3D Create & Print at £6.99 a pop,” writes Stuart Dredge, [publisher Eaglemoss] is hoping to get a 3D printer into the homes of people who are keen to experiment with 3D-printing, but have balked at the upfront price of existing models.” The idea is to learn as you go, first assembling the printer, then using the knowledge you developed during its assembly to inform later creations.

There are those, however, who see the solution to putting 3D-printing in every home as more of a software issue than a hardware issue. “Desktop 3D-printing has long been a one- or two-color affair,” writes Signe Brewster. “Printers that work in two colors tend to have two nozzles, each of which draws plastic filament from a different spool. Not [Madison, Wisconsin-based startup] Spectrom. The [company] actually uses ink to dye the same strand of filament different colors along its length, opening up a full range of colors. … Its software designates the exact amount of filament that needs to be dyed for a red layer or a blue square within a layer. It’s much more complicated to build software that can account for the color of each drop of filament, but Spectrom believes it is doable.” The upshot? Cheaper full-color 3D-printing, which very soon could be accessible to the market at large.

More than plastic is affected. Just as Chinese manufacturers are claiming to erect buildings from recycled materials, the 3D-printing of metals – an industry in its infancy – is also ready to explode. “According to 3D-printing insights firm Wohlers Associates,” writes Steve Heller, “the metal 3D-printing industry experienced 75.8 percent annual growth in 2013, equating to 348 metal 3D-printers being sold worldwide. Despite its relatively small size, metal 3D-printing was a major focus at [the world’s largest 3D-printing conference, EuroMold], because the expectation is that it will grow to represent a larger percentage of the overall 3D-printing market as more manufacturing-related applications take hold. After all, General Electric has plans to metal-3D-print more than 45,000 mission-critical jet engine fuel nozzles per year by 2020 – a feat that is likely to make history as the largest-scale mission-critical 3D-printing application ever. Metal 3D-printing players seem to be banking on the likelihood that GE will fuel increased adoption across the industry.”

In the coming years, the pace of 3D-printing development will only increase, and likely at an exponential rate. It will be interesting to see just which different areas of our lives this technology touches. And while it will certainly improve our lives in many ways, it will also likely create unintended consequences – problems we cannot even imagine until they occur. As with any new technology, our only choice is to take these as they come, and deal with them as we can.

Media wishing to interview Phil Elmore, please contact [email protected].