A Chinese company has become the first to construct multiple buildings using 3D printers that extrude recycled building materials at breakneck speed.
Using four huge 3D printers, Yingchuang New Materials Inc. was able to print the shells of 10 one-room structures in 24 hours and at a cost of only about $5,000 per building. The buildings had to harden at the factory and then be transported and assembled on site.
The 3D printed buildings will be used as offices at a Shanghai industrial park.
The printers, supplied by WinSun Decoration Design Engineering, are 20 feet tall, 33 feet wide and 132 feet long.
Like their desktop counterparts, the construction-grade WinSun 3D printers use a fused deposition modeling (FDM) technology to deposit materials one layer at a time in a process that's similar to squeezing frosting from a pastry bag.
Using a CAD design as a template, a computer controls a mechanical extruder arm to lay down concrete, which is treated with special hardeners so that each layer is strong enough to support the next.
The buildings are constructed in parts inside a Yingchuang New Materials factory, one wall at a time. The pieces are subsequently joined together at a construction site.
The Yingchuang factory and research center, a 33,000-sq.-ft. building, was also constructed using the 3D printing manufacturing technique. It only took one month to construct, according to Ma Yihe, the founder and president of the company.
Yingchuang is not the first organization to use 3D printing to create structures, even if it is the first to successfully demonstrate the technique for constructing multiple buildings in a single day.
Several years ago, researchers at the University of Southern California also demonstrated 3D printing techniques to construct entire buildings in less than a day.
As outrageous as it sounds, such machines can already extrude concrete walls with internal reinforcement fast enough to complete the shell of a 2,000-sq.-ft. house in under 20 hours.
Using a robotic extruding method called Contour Crafting, the industrial size printers are similar to their desktop counterparts in that they take orders from CAD software that stores and executes the architectural designs. The designs can be customized on a construction site even as work is underway.
The machines can also automatically embed all the conduits for electrical, plumbing and air-conditioning systems, as well as place electronic sensors to monitor the building's temperature and health over time.
Behrokh Khoshnevis, a professor of industrial and systems engineering at USC's Viterbi School of Engineering, is leading the effort to perfect the Contour Crafting construction technology.
A Contour Crafting machine, which is made up of a metal gantry frame, along with the robotic extruding system, weighs about 500 lbs. It comes in two pieces and can be put together quickly on a construction site.
Each layer of concrete extruded by the machine is 4 inches thick and about 6 inches in height. Special hardeners are used in the concrete to ensure that the material is hard enough to support the next layer by the time the machine circumnavigates the outside perimeter of a structure.
Khoshnevis said he believes that 3D printing could be used to build everything from affordable housing in third-world countries to facilities on other planets -- using materials native to those planets.
Unlike Yingchuang's 3D printers, which build structures one wall at a time, Contour Crafting's machines construct an entire building in one continuous movement.
More recently, Dutch design studio Dus Architects built a canal house in Amsterdam using a portable 3D printer that it created, called a KamerMaker (RoomMaker).
To build the canal house, Dus used thermoplastic material to print pieces that measured about 6 ft. x 6 ft. x 12 ft. in size. The pieces were assembled on site like Lego blocks.
Unlike both Dus Architects' and Contour Crafting's 3D printing equipment, Yingchuang's technology extrudes recycled construction materials, such as sand, concrete and glass fiber.
Based in Suzhou, China, Yingchuang has been developing the 3D printing construction technology for 12 years, according to a report from Chinese television company CNC World.
Yihe believes 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing technology, could be used to build skyscrapers made with pulverized materials from demolished buildings.
Yihe would like to build 100 recycling factories in China, according to the 3D printing design website, 3ders. His plan is to collect building debris and then process it to make inexpensive building material for use in Yingchuang's 3D printers.
Additionally, Yihe told 3ders that Tomson, a well-known housing developer, has approached him with a plan to build a villa.
Lucas Mearian covers consumer data storage, consumerization of IT, mobile device management, renewable energy, telematics/car tech and entertainment tech for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.