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3D Printing With Concrete Reaches New Milestone

3/14/2017

Last year, we talked about a huge development in the industry – the successful 3D printing of concrete structures. See the article here. Now there’s been another big step forward in this arena.

Previously, the equipment for 3D printing concrete was large and cumbersome. It was confined to a specific location or production facility. This meant that components had to be printed ahead of time then transported and installed onsite. For all intents and purposes, concrete 3D printing operated in much the same model as precast.

Over the past couple days, the internet has been abuzz with the portable concrete 3D printer developed by Apis Cor, a San Francisco-based company, and Russian firm PIK. The equipment uses an arm mounted on a rotating base, with a movable printer head. It is transported and quickly erected. Onsite, automated mills supply the printer with what appears to be a low slump concrete. The developers of the technology say they will be able to use a variety of materials to improve performance and ease of construction.

The demonstration project took place in Russia in the dead of winter, so a heated tent had to be built around the contraction project. The design called for a circular, 409 square foot house to be completed in 24 hours. Apis Cor’s printer placed two narrow strips of concrete, forming an inner and outer wall with a void for insulation. That void was later filled with loose fill and expanding foam. Wall segments were tied together with fiberglass reinforcing rods. After printing was complete, laborers installed windows and other fixtures. Minimal finishing was required to smooth and paint the walls. The company claims the structure will last up to 175 years. Final cost for the completed, finished home was stated to be around $10,000 with the concrete structure – foundation, floor, walls, and roof – accounting for less than half of that.

The implications of this development are far reaching. For the construction industry as a whole, it means faster construction with lower labor costs. Durable concrete structures can be easily and quickly built in place with limited human involvement – leading to lower costs and greater consistency. These efficiencies have the potential to affect two significant problems facing society – housing shortages and emergency housing.

In world cities, such a Singapore, London, and San Francisco, housing costs have skyrocketed. There simply isn’t enough housing to meet demand so many middle and working class people are priced out of the cities. Portable 3D printers for concrete can reduce the cost of constructing buildings. While the portable printer would not be able to complete a full structure on its own, as shown in the demonstration, it could easily be used to rapidly and cheaply construct segments of the structure. For example, a “team” of printers could print one floor at a time. Workers would come in to finish the segments and reposition the printers for the next stage. This would make intricately designed, luxury accommodations affordable for more people.

After major disasters – hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes – thousands of people can be left homeless. Refugees and victims of natural disaster or often forced to live, sometimes for years, in tents, trailers, and makeshift shacks. Unsuitable housing can compound the issues they face and lead to sickness, unrest, and death. Imagine if, after such a disaster, a couple dozen of these printers were located in the safe zone designated for displaced peoples. In just a few short days, hundreds of durable, comfortable homes could be built and avert further humanitarian crisis.

Anything that promotes the use of concrete helps the industry. It shows people that concrete is a viable and versatile material. As technology develops, 3D printing – once dismissed as frivolous – has the potential to be one of these transformative developments.

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