Printing Progress–Books, Guns, And Now Buildings

3D printed home produced by ICON

Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the 1400’s revolutionized the world by allowing the production of books and newspapers. In 2022, printing has leapt beyond mere written material–guns and even buildings now come hot off the press. It’s not just any press though; it’s a 3D printer. Additive manufacturing is providing stunning, and scary, results.

What’s additive manufacturing (“AM”)? This term is the industrial production name for 3D printing. AM is a computer-controlled process in which three dimensional objects are created from the depositing of materials, typically in layers. While the term itself sounds innocuous, the 3D results can be quite threatening. Think, “Stick ’em up!”

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re aware of an alarming rise in gun violence in the United States. Contributing to this weapon-fueled mayhem are “ghost guns.” These are not guns wielded by spirits, but they do contribute to death and destruction. Such guns are brought to us courtesy of AM. You can print your own weapon right at home. (But please don’t do it!)

Ghost guns are unregistered and untraceable homemade weapons produced by a 3D printer or assembled from a kit. News reports indicate that less that $200 allows John Q. Public to produce his own ghost gun. You too could build an illegal plastic weapon that’s untraceable and can pass undetected through a metal detector. Printing a Bible is great progress, but printing a deadly weapon? Yikes!

AM stretches beyond production of weapons. Guns are generally small, but 3D printing can create huge things such as buildings too. Yes, BUILDINGS. Think houses, military barracks, schools, and apartment buildings. Dubai, for example, boasts a 6,900 square foot office complex courtesy of AM. And to show the country is on the leading edge of technology, Dubai has set a goal of having 25% of its new buildings 3D printed by 2030.

Americans are also getting in on the action of AM to produce buildings. The Texas Military Department partnered with ICON, an Austin-based construction technology company, to design and build the biggest 3D printed military barracks in North America. This 3,800 square foot facility at Camp Swift Training Center in Bastrop, Texas is able to house 72 National Guard soldiers. Printed in concrete, the barracks were produced at one-third the cost of traditional construction methods and can last for decades. While 3D printed barracks may not sound luxurious, it sure beats roughing it in tents in the great outdoors.

Non-profits are also embracing AM as they seek to provide affordable housing and educational facilities. One such non-profit, Colorado-based Thinking Huts, has a mission to increase global access to education through 3D printing. Don’t have a school? Let’s print one out for you! With AM, a school can be built in less than a week as opposed to months via traditional construction.

Because 3D printing has comparatively low cost and a quick turnaround time, this method may be a tool in dealing with disaster relief and housing shortages. In fact, AM offers the ability to build houses faster, cheaper, and more accurately than ever. Why is the process cheaper? It is machine led, so skilled labor is not required. A house 3D printer only takes one person to monitor it, so the labor cost is lessened. Hmm. Are the machines headed for a take over?

In addition to reduced production costs, 3D printing’s also more environmentally friendly. It only uses the exact amount of material required to build a house. The technique also allows environmental concessions in a house’s design. In July 2018, a French family moved into a four bedroom AM home, becoming the first family to live in a 3D-printed house. This structure was built to curve around environmentally protected trees.

How quickly can a house be 3D printed? Rome may not have been built in a day, but a house, or at least the structure of one, can be printed in one. Full completion takes a few weeks as contractors are needed to put in windows and doors and to add a roof.

And why stop at just one house when you could build a whole neighborhood? Plans have been drawn for an entire luxury community in Southern California. Rancho Mirage, located in Coachella Valley, is set to become the location for the country’s first 3D printing produced community. The project’s plans call for 15 eco-friendly homes on 5-acres with completion expected sometime in 2022.

Apparently 3D printers can produce large structures, then, but how? I’m no engineer, but I’d guess some LARGE printers are required. And, of course, I’m right. An office complex in Dubai was produced by a 20′ (that’s FOOT not inches) tall concrete 3D printer with a robotic arm to deposit cement.

Austin-based ICON’s initial 3D printer was 11.5′ tall by 33′ wide (again that’s FEET). The printer’s “ink” is a concrete mix put down in stacked layers from the ground up. ICON’s newest printer is even bigger and also faster. It is 1.5 times the size of the original and can work two times faster. Let’s hope the big printers don’t experience the issues smaller ones do; a concrete jam is likely to be more serious and harder to fix than a paper jam.

Like any development, AM has brought progress which comes at a cost. Having the technology to produce buildings faster, cheaper, and more efficiently is a plus, but drawbacks exist. 3D printing reduces the need for human labor thereby depriving some humans of a job. It also offers the ability to do things such as construct illegal, untraceable ghost guns.

While it would be great to take only the positive aspects of advancement, picking and choosing its consequences is never really is an option. The good and the bad results of progress are a package deal. You may be asked to stick ’em up by a ghost gun wielding robber as you walk towards your quickly produced 3D printed office downtown. But don’t expect to read about the robbery in the paper. Producing newspapers from a printing press is a declining, perhaps even dying, industry.

Just WONDER-ing:

Would you live or work in a 3D printed structure if given the chance? Which is more important, providing housing and schools or preserving construction jobs? How should the accessibility of homemade ghost guns be countered?