In 2012, six single-family homes were made by a 3D printer in China. The inventor of that technology is now working on a 3D printer designed to construct buildings on Mars. Does this technology have a future on Earth? Or does the future of homebuilding involve modern factories that leverage robots to build wood or steel framing similar to the types of machines you might find in modern automotive plants?
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Inventor of Contour Crafting
Professor of Industrial & Operations Engineering at University of Michigan
Lead Project Engineer at Fincantieri
In January of 2015, a company revealed a six-story home that they made with a 3D printer. The best to way to explain how a 3D printer works is to contrast it with a typical printer that uses ink to print on a sheet of paper. The thickness of the ink is so infinitesimally small that if you held the paper up to your face, you likely wouldn’t be able to see any elevation of ink on the printed area of the page.
Now imagine if the printer used a thicker type of ink and printed on that sheet of paper not just once, but in multiple layers over the same area. Eventually the inked area would become raised. If you used a different printing material other than ink, and you altered the printer’s instructions to achieve a certain height, you might eventually be able to print something like a plastic bowl. That’s how 3D printing works, and the options of materials and instructions you can use to print are only limited by your imagination.
3D printing is currently an explosive field where lots of entrepreneurs have trained their sights. Already, we have 3D printers that make toys, apparel, even car parts. How about 3D printing to make a home? The same company that used the 3D printer to make that six-story home in 2015 had a year earlier made 10 stand-alone one-story houses with a 3D printer from construction waste and cement.
Although, I must tell you that I wasn’t at all impressed by the video I saw of the 3D printed home on YouTube. The company that made these homes basically rigged a giant squirt gun to repeatedly squirt layer after layer of cement in a pattern that ended up forming the walls of each house. If 3D printing is going to revolutionize the construction industry, it certainly won’t happen with this implementation. Nonetheless, I wanted to speak to the inventor of this 3D printing technology to see how this technology might be used more effectively in the future.
Colonies On Mars And Machines In The Meteor Belt
Behrokh Khoshnevis is a professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Southern California. He patented the Contour Crafting system that seems to have been sloppily implemented to 3D print the house in the YouTube video. Behrokh has no relationship with the company that built those homes.
If you really want to see the future of construction, you have to listen to how 3D printing would work in the most ideal circumstances. What I’m about to explore is out of this world. Literally. Behrokh is currently working with NASA to use 3D printers to build structures on Mars.
Behrokh Khoshnevis: “I approached NASA with a proposal to use lunar and Martian in situ material and build the structures. As opposed to all the proposed methods of taking stuff from here and building stuff on those planets, I recommended a much more viable approach. If there is a technology that can use what is up there, of course it would be economically much more attractive.”
Me: “So the extraterrestrial approach would be, you would transport the 3D printer, if you will, and the associated materials?”
This was a pretty stupid question. Prior to speaking with Behrokh, I hadn’t given any thought to the business of building structures on the Moon or Mars. But obviously, if you’re going to start construction there, and you want to build out of concrete, you wouldn’t bring the concrete from Earth. Concrete is made from sand or some type of gravel, water, and cement. So if it’s possible to get the sand or gravel from space, why carry it with you from our planet?
Behrokh Khoshnevis: “In situ materials. Use whatever is on the moon and whatever is on Mars and build with those. And I demonstrated that that can be done. We built pretty strong structures with the material that is up there. We made some kind of concrete without using water.”
Me: “That’s fascinating. So in other words, the rover would go to the moon, collect sand, or some other raw material, and then somehow or another, either through human intervention or through robots, would feed that sand into this 3D printing device, and then build.”
Behrokh Khoshnevis: “Yeah, exactly. So there won’t be any humans involved.”
While Behrokh’s research for 3D printing in space is currently funded by a grant from NASA, he has also been contacted by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, that is currently planning an unmanned mission to Mars for 2018, about how his technology might be used to build a colony there. But what was really interesting for me was to hear Behrokh talk about sending the 3D printers to space to print buildings, not just for Mars, but also for here on Earth.
Behrokh Khoshnevis: “When I got my first grant from NASA and I made the first demonstrations, the first people who came to see me were people from SpaceX. They were especially interested in martian applications. Later on as I made more progress, I’ve been contacted by a number of other commercial space entities. Right now, we have a few of them that are interested in mining in space. They’re interested in fabricating in space, interested in space tourism.”
Me: “SpaceX has this idea that they’re going to create a colony that will be habitable. Why would people be interested in fabricating in space, other than for a colony?”
Behrokh Khoshnevis: “I believe probably the biggest part of space resources that we will get in the coming years, decades, starting from maybe 20 years from now, is fabrication in space. Probably in 50 years, our capability to manufacture in space will be millions of times bigger than what it is on Earth. You can imagine what humanity can do with that capability. Why? Because space offers free resources.”
I think if you look out far enough into the future, a growing number of buildings will be constructed by 3D printers. Houses might be built on-site in a matter of hours by giant 3D printers that hover over a location and print using concrete or some other cementitious material, moving to the next construction site once each building is complete. Or houses might be built by 3D printers that live in a factory and then their finished modules will be shipped to the site to be assembled with cranes, like stacking oversized Legos. Or maybe, according to Behrokh, the 3D printers will live in space and fabricate buildings on other planets to eventually be transported back to Earth.