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3D Printers To Build Houses 305

gbjbaanb writes to point out an article in the Sunday Times describing two separate programs where robots are being developed to build houses. The Los Angeles project is farther along than the one in the UK, but the article provides more details on the techniques employed in the latter. Liquid concrete and gypsum will be sprayed from nozzles in a manner analogous to an inkjet printer. From the article: "The first prototype — a watertight shell of a two-story house built in 24 hours without a single builder on site — will be erected in California before April. The robots are rigged to a metal frame, enabling them to shuttle in three dimensions and assemble the structure of the house layer by layer. The sole foreman on site operates a computer programmed with the designer's plans... Inspired by the inkjet printer, the technology goes far beyond the techniques already used for prefabricated homes. 'This will remove all the limitations of traditional building,' said [an architect involved with the UK project]. 'Anything you can dream you can build.'"
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3D Printers To Build Houses

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  • What happens when the "ink" clogs?
  • But how to you turn gypsum into windows?
  • Uh... (Score:5, Funny)

    by cptgrudge ( 177113 ) <cptgrudge@gmail . c om> on Monday January 15, 2007 @05:47AM (#17611332) Journal

    "Anything you can dream you can build."

    That seems overly optimistic. I think there are a few laws of physics that would disagree.

  • Inkjet Plumbing? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by mrshowtime ( 562809 ) on Monday January 15, 2007 @05:50AM (#17611344)
    Is the "printer" going to print out liquid gypsum plumbing and electrical work as well? I actually had to cancel my contract on a house because the builder laid out the plumbing a foot off, which to them was no big deal. I was lucky I caught them and did my own measurements after the slab was poured, otherwise I would have had a ticking time bomb regarding the plumbing and possibly severe drainage problems.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by jacksonj04 ( 800021 )
      Doubtful, but it would be fairly simple (from what I can gather) to have the 'printer' work in tandem with another device which can accurately place pre-manufactured plumbing, wiring etc.

      Of course how that device works is another issue, but you could end up with a single mobile 'rig' which can just move along an empty row of plots and build houses all day. Quicker and cheaper than a load of builders.
      • Re:Inkjet Plumbing? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by TapeCutter ( 624760 ) on Monday January 15, 2007 @09:11AM (#17612408) Journal
        In Japan you can by a house one room at a time, the rooms are placed on a large box metal base. There whole thing is built in a factory and fits together like lego on site, there are no traditional foundations, the base just sits ontop of the ground making the houses "earthquake proof". If you want an extra room you can just bolt one on.
      • Re:Inkjet Plumbing? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by K8Fan ( 37875 ) on Monday January 15, 2007 @01:22PM (#17615596) Journal
        Doubtful, but it would be fairly simple (from what I can gather) to have the 'printer' work in tandem with another device which can accurately place pre-manufactured plumbing, wiring etc.

        True. The building trades are moving towards technologies that can be automated. For instance, plumbing is using a plastic semi-rigid tubing called PEX. It's sold in sticks, but is flexible enough to be delivered on large reels. It's crimped onto brass connectors - nothing that couldn't be done by a robot. A regular plumber would do the finish work of connecting the toilets, sinks, baths, water heaters, etc.

        Same thing for electrical work. Most houses are wired with Romex, and 3M introduced a crimp Romex joint that could easily be applied by a robot. The robot could ink-jet print all the information about where the wire stubs coming out of the walls come from or go to. The electrician would then just finish the house by connecting the breaker panel, switches, outlets and lights.

        There is virtually nothing running through the walls of a house - telephone, TV, alarm, heating and return air ducts, drains - that couldn't be installed with robotic labor.

        The problem is that all these cost saving measures are going to eliminate a huge number of jobs. Read Marshall Brain's "Robotic Nation" essay [marshallbrain.com] to get an idea of the social ramifications.

    • The rival British system is likely to take at least a week but will include more sophisticated design features, with the computer's nozzle weaving in ducts for water pipes, electrical wiring and ventilation within the panels of gypsum or concrete.

      I've used the new push together plastic plumbing myself to fit a shower - its extremely easy and down right fool proof. As long as these ducts were smooth and gently curved at corvers pushing this piping down it should not be an issue - ditto for electricals (an

  • by giafly ( 926567 ) on Monday January 15, 2007 @05:56AM (#17611372)
    ... also painters, electricians, interior decorators, glaziers, etc.. This system seems to miss out most of the fiddly, expensive jobs.

    How does it put the layer of insulation in the wall cavities? Is there a way of producing foamed concrete? That would be cool.

    Finally "possibly even wallpaper". This is a really bad idea. I used to live in the Barbican [wikipedia.org] in London, which used textured concrete surfaces for the walls of its stairs and communal areas, and my knuckles still bear the scars
    • by mccalli ( 323026 ) on Monday January 15, 2007 @06:07AM (#17611414) Homepage
      It's true that these won't produce fully fledged ready to move into homes, but it's still a start isn't it? Providing the quality is good then I'm all in favour of moves like this.

      I have a couple of domestic robots, the Roomba and Scooba. I still need a vacuum cleaner and a mop, but only to handle the fiddly bits (stairs, furniture, round the back of the fridge etc.). The vast bulk of the work is handled by the two robots. I view these projects in the same way - they're a good starting point and will do a large amount of the work, but you'll still need some skill and manual work at the end to finish things off.

      I used to live in the Barbican in London...
      I'm working there and posting from there now. You have my deepest sympathies, horrible place. I'm from Sheffield - up there we dynamite places like the Barbican, not slap preservation orders on them.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        I have a couple of domestic robots
        Domesticated robots? Robots need to be free to be in the wild.
    • by jcr ( 53032 )
      Is there a way of producing foamed concrete?

      Yes, it's called http://www.cement.org/basics/concretebasics_airent rained.asp [slashdot.org] >air-entrained concrete.

      It's been used for decades for building floating docks, among other things. If you have enough air in the mix, you can make it less dense than water.

  • Test page? (Score:5, Funny)

    by ZeroTrace ( 594778 ) on Monday January 15, 2007 @05:59AM (#17611384) Homepage
    What happens if you print a test page? Does it build a giant HP logo?
  • Super old (Score:4, Informative)

    by Atario ( 673917 ) on Monday January 15, 2007 @05:59AM (#17611388) Homepage
    119. Need a Home in a Hurry? Press Print [popsci.com]
    Jun 29, 2004
    An oversize printer could speed up building construction.
  • ... is ahead, but less advanced. From the article it seems the Loughborough one can create more complicated designs, and include all the functional aspects of the house (ducts, etc.). It takes longer, but you actually get a house after it's done :)
  • by mindriot ( 96208 ) on Monday January 15, 2007 @06:03AM (#17611398)

    A few links could of course have helped this article... I think contourcrafting.org [contourcrafting.org] seems to be more or less the right page for the California project. The videos and animations [isi.edu] are quite worth seeing.

    For the Loughborough one, the closest I could come up with was Dr Soar's website [lboro.ac.uk]...

  • by clickclickdrone ( 964164 ) on Monday January 15, 2007 @06:05AM (#17611404)
    How are the Maf*a et al going to hide their bodies now if the concrete side of things is automated? Actually, thinking about it things could go the other way for them. Concrete shoes sir? What style? Any particular heel?
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Joebert ( 946227 )
      It would be rather, unfortunate, if Johnny were to, accidentally, wander into the building while the robots is spraying the cement.
  • by bir0 ( 315616 )
    After watching the video of a 3D printer posted a few days back, I don't really understand how they do the top of things. What do they do when the top is flat. I can understand the floor, but does the top of everything else above the floor have to be a dome? Will it be like living in Tatooine? (Tunisia?) Dome I understand, but how does a spray of concrete/gypsum defy gravity long enough to set flat?

    (I'm hesitant asking this question, it might be blatantly obvious to everyone but me. :-/)
    • After watching the video of a 3D printer posted a few days back, I don't really understand how they do the top of things. What do they do when the top is flat.

      The way some 3D printers for rapid prototyping work is that they mix a type of glue with the material the object is made of -- let's say it's sand. So when you're building something, the printer is effectively outputting a cube of sand layer by layer but for each layer, where the object's structure is there's the cross-section of glue also laid down. I'm probably not explaining it that well, but I hope it makes sense. A flat surface will be supported by all of the sand that's beneath it. When the last

    • The prototyping machine as currently set grabs some boards and crap from the sides and puts them on. You are correct that doors and windows, and even roofs are special cases. It is rather powerless for things such as dome which require scaffolding.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by gundersd ( 787946 )
      You aroused my curiosity, and it turns out that the video at http://www.isi.edu/craft/CC/Welcome_files/resource s/animation.html [isi.edu] (thanks to mindriot for pointing this out) shows a simple solution. For those on limited bandwidth connections, the basic gist of it is that the floor & walls are "printed" and then a separate robot arm picks up some flat (almost I-beam looking things) that it lays across the roof. The I-beams are then "printed" over to hold them in place & seal them.
  • Inkjet? (Score:3, Funny)

    by Zonk (troll) ( 1026140 ) on Monday January 15, 2007 @06:07AM (#17611412)

    Inspired by the inkjet printer, the technology goes far beyond the techniques already used for prefabricated homes.
    So when it rains the house is going to smear?
  • by Beryllium Sphere(tm) ( 193358 ) on Monday January 15, 2007 @06:11AM (#17611432) Homepage Journal
    If there isn't reinforcement, how does the floor on the second story (first story for the UK project :-)) support itself? Is it arched or something?

    How does it stay watertight? Do they just mean it will keep the rain off for long enough to get a real roof installed? Or are they planning on leaving it with a concrete roof?

    What keeps the concrete from slumping while it's being sprayed? Does someone have to put up forms ahead of time?
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by fbjon ( 692006 )
      the second story (first story for the UK project :-))
      Dupe story for slashdot.
    • by Chyeld ( 713439 )
      One of the demo videos shows reinforcement being placed down by another robot before the concrete is formed. However rather than long bars of rebar, it looks as if they used T's that screwed into each other upside down. For horizontal reinforcement, the T's had holes in their flanges which allowed a third robot to place down U or C bars.

      It looks as if the 'forms' are laid by the robot as it pours the concrete.
  • by eugene_roux ( 76055 ) on Monday January 15, 2007 @06:13AM (#17611450) Homepage
    The biggest problem we have here in the third world, other than education, is housing.

    Currently what happens is that -- in the urbunising of people -- most people tend to build with whatever materials they have available leading to shanty-towns all over Africa with people living in shack-like hovels.

    If this technology is able to deliver, and deliver cheaply, we might just have one of the technologies needed to bootstrap Africa out of abject poverty.

    The other major problem, education, might just be in the hands of the OLPC guys...
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by 6Yankee ( 597075 )
      Abject poverty = lots of cheap labour.

      Assuming that building lots of houses is going to kick-start the economy, you could do it far more efficiently by letting real people do the work. For money. But where does the money come from, for the labour and for the materials?


      There have been so many "simple solutions" it's just not funny any more.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by dk.r*nger ( 460754 )

        Maybe. But if private property and rule of law was established instead of just dumping money, then people would be able to own their houses (and be relatively safe in the knowledge that a random warlord won't show up and take it), which again allows them to take out mortgages.
        When people can lend money to build houses, they can choose other materials than banana peels and dirt.
        • Too bad that loans are forbidden in Islam ... so 1/5th of the world's population cannot do this.

          PC police would call what you are saying a "racist comment". Like distributing pork soup to the homeless :

          http://www.canadafreepress.com/2007/brussels010407 .htm [canadafreepress.com]
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by Calinous ( 985536 )
            Loans are allowed in Islam - taking interest from a loan is not.
                  However, there are islamic banks that take no interest (taxes a loan in different ways), so even in the most islamic country you could take a loan from the most islamic bank
            • by jcr ( 53032 )
              They play a shell game, where the bank nominally buys the house and sells it to the borrower at a higher price for installments. It's interest, whatever they want to pretend.

    • If I'm remembering correctly, it's even better than it sounds from the article. Given strong enough sunlight, I believe it can use mud instead of cement. This is half-remembered from the last time this concept came around (a couple of years ago, I think), so it may have been ditched, but if it's true... well, yay all round, really.
    • And then you do ... what. As practice proves putting people who used to be so far from eachother that they couldn't possibly reach one another in a city, so close that they can no longer deny their differences ... people start killing eachother.

      Education is nice, but takes 10 years at least and parents WANT their children to kill "the other bastards" (for various definitions of "the other bastards"). E.g. terrorism in the west.

      Then again ... nobody knows what will happen.
    • There now we have a problem. It is going to take a small team of well educated people to manage these robots and properly setup the scaffolding. Vs. a smaller group of educated people and a bunch of people who job is based on skills vs. education. So in poorer countries even in rich ones. These could greatly effect the economy negatively. So in a place where the 2 biggest problems are education and housing means these housing methods will need people with more education and less jobs for the less forma
  • define build time (Score:2, Insightful)

    by picob ( 1025968 )

    The first prototype -- a watertight shell of a two-story house built in 24 hours without a single builder on site -- will be erected in California before April. The robots are rigged to a metal frame, enabling them to shuttle in three dimensions and assemble the structure of the house layer by layer. The sole foreman on site operates a computer programmed with the designer's plans...

    Maybe the house can be built in 24 hours, but how long does it take to build the metal rails for the robots? Are the robots re

    • by ItsIllak ( 95786 )
      I've watched some of the animations and videos available on one of the creator's website and can answer that question.

      There are two predomenant designs for the robots. Wall riders and a metal superstructure. The former actually uses the building it is making to gain height. It "draws" the wall structure, then rides up it collecting concrete from an elevated ground based pourer. once it's finished, it's rescued from the top of the wall structure. These appear to have pretty minimal potential as they've
  • Dolls-house size! See Fab@Home [fabathome.org] or see the New Scientist report. [newscientisttech.com]
  • I finally feel like I'm living in a post 2000 era!

    (I just read the headline, to be honest)
  • by OeLeWaPpErKe ( 412765 ) on Monday January 15, 2007 @06:31AM (#17611578) Homepage
    http://www.isi.edu/CRAFT/ [isi.edu]

    Much more details.
  • Why is it that interesting stories like this never carry pictures!

    Here are some at least:
    http://www.contourcrafting.org/ [contourcrafting.org]
  • by Flying pig ( 925874 ) on Monday January 15, 2007 @06:50AM (#17611702)
    Do you really want to live in a concrete house in the English climate? Concrete is good for tropical and warm climates where rainfall is not too high, but in the UK where humidity is high most of the year it is a recipe for damp and mould. And, as the formet Soviet Union showed us, it does not make for a particularly attractive architecture. Fine in Ca., where there is room to build and spread, but in the UK most new build is tiny terraced boxes. Think Soviet-era brutalistic apartment blocks, because that is what you will most likely get.

    In the UK, there is usually a bloody good reason for the traditional building materials and designs in any area. Mass builders just drop standardised buildings at any angle to the weather which suits them, and then the owners wonder why the walls are always wet, or tiles fall off every time the prevailing wind blows.

    The five year gap before it is due to be commercialised in the UK may be due to the development needed to address UK-specific building problems, but it is more likely just to be under funding.

    In case you think this is Luddite prejudice, I live in a town where many houses date back to the 17th Century and are built of local materials. Part of the town centre was demolished in the 1970s to build small modern houses. Guess which houses had to be demolished less than 30 years later? New builds this century are already starting to look a bit decrepit as the wind and rain (which are thrown off by our local stone) do their work on cheap modern building materials.

    • by Ihlosi ( 895663 ) on Monday January 15, 2007 @07:22AM (#17611856)
      Concrete is good for tropical and warm climates where rainfall is not too high, but in the UK where humidity is high most of the year it is a recipe for damp and mould.

      Actually, the recipe for mold is insufficient insulation and improper heating/ventilation habits.

      None of these have particularly much to do with concrete, other than concrete requiring a few more cm of insulation on the outside than bricks.

    • Concrete has been used to build some very attractive housing in the UK - not just horrible blocks. In the "Art Deco" (I think) period of the '20s some architects made excellent use of the material - especially it's ability to form smooth curves. See examples in the "Poirot" TV series, for example.
      Of course, I don't know how practical they are for everyday living, but I suspect they are no worse than typical modern rabbit-hutches.
      The problem will be
      find your building plot
      get a d
    • My university, SFU [www.sfu.ca], is in one of the rainiest regions of Canada and is built almost entirely out of concrete. We have some problems with leaks in the older buildings, but overall I haven't seen a whole lot of problems with mold...
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Colin Smith ( 2679 )

      Do you really want to live in a concrete house in the English climate? Concrete is good for tropical and warm climates where rainfall is not too high, but in the UK where humidity is high most of the year it is a recipe for damp and mould. And, as the formet Soviet Union showed us, it does not make for a particularly attractive architecture.

      Nothing to do with concrete. You can build pretty much anything you like with concrete. The Romans used it thousands of years ago.

      http://www.romanconcrete.com/photos.htm [romanconcrete.com]

    • I'd just like to say this guy is most likely correct.

      I've been in a wide variety of homes over the years, be it living there, guest or whatever and frankly I find most modern homes are built like absoloute shit nowadays.

      They are often small, cheaply built and flimsy - much like the consumer electronics we put up with nowadays.
      They are very very often incredibly poorly energy efficient and require huge heating and cooling systems to be installed, under the assumption that cheap energy will be around forever
  • My first thoughts: Wow! This could revolutionize, like, everything!

    Second thoughts: Hang on a sec. Sounds too good to be true.

    I'm having visions of street after street, suburb after suburb, of awful robot-built houses right now.
    • by vhogemann ( 797994 ) <[moc.nnamegoh] [ta] [rotciv]> on Monday January 15, 2007 @08:34AM (#17612176) Homepage
      I think its quite the opposite,

      Intricate details, decorations, and such will be much easier, and cheaper, to do using these robotic constructors.

      It would be easy to get the finished plans, and add every bit of baroque extravagance to your house using a CAD program, and being able to preview it real-time. Everybody will have a chance to be a Gaudí [wikipedia.org].
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Jerf ( 17166 )
        Yes. Expect the same people complaining about rows of houses that are too similar to whip right around to complaining about rows of houses that are too radically different at dizzying speeds.

        (Because the real underlying complaint is "Not everybody has the same tastes as me, and the same high prioritization of 'taste' as me".... that will always find a way to manifest in some complaint.)
  • Video's slashdotted (Score:5, Informative)

    by sucker_muts ( 776572 ) <sucker_pvnNO@SPAMhotmail.com> on Monday January 15, 2007 @06:59AM (#17611742) Homepage Journal
    ... but luckily youtube has a video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4r7r-qlKkUo [youtube.com]
  • by Xiroth ( 917768 ) on Monday January 15, 2007 @07:01AM (#17611754)
    Ooooo, orbital structures. It may not be able to make the solar panels, but this might be able to take a lot of the work out of putting together a Solar Power Satellite [wikipedia.org], and some day even an orbital colony. Or planet-based colony, I suppose, for you land-loving heathens.
  • I can just imagine the business model now... sell the robot for $49.95 and the 'ink' cartridges for $49950 (good for a volume of 5m^3). House plans will be loaded via usb stick, but they can only be designed with licensed software ($100000/user), and only then by architects who have attended the $50000 training course, which must be attended every two years.

    Within hours of release someone will have reverse engineered the 'ink' cartridge slot to take generic branded concrete bags, and the private keys for si
  • Sweet! Now if I can just imagine some real estate that I could actually afford in San Diego County.
  • by Capt James McCarthy ( 860294 ) on Monday January 15, 2007 @07:41AM (#17611946) Journal
    "If you ask a bricklayer to lay bricks in anything other than a straight line, you'll run into problems," said Soar. "But if you ask the robot to make a squiggly line it really doesn't care." I'm sure there are many a brickmason who can run bricks in many formations besides a straight line. I'm positive on this fact because the brickmasons who did my foundation was anything but straight.
  • by mrjb ( 547783 ) on Monday January 15, 2007 @07:42AM (#17611948)
    The machine builds houses in 1/200 of the time at 1/5 of the cost. Who wants to bet the price of houses will stay around the same level? Almost any random 2-bedroom house in the Netherlands costs a quarter of a million euros nowadays. The same size house sells around a hundred thousand in Portugal. In Canada, this price range can get you a 5-bedroom house. Based on these numbers, it would seem to me that the cost of building the house itself is just a minor factor in the price of a house.
    • by Ihlosi ( 895663 )
      Who wants to bet the price of houses will stay around the same level?

      Well, the robot won't change anything about the prices for real estate (which can be up to 50% of the price of the house), so ...

    • Supply and demand. Sure it'll start that way, but as the number of robots increase, competition will push down the price. Of course supply also depends on land, planning permission, business regulations etc.

  • I'm pretty sure /. has covered this before. [slashdot.org]

  • hmm.... Sounds like a good idea, with a one big con.


    - Bathroom - no need to worry about water leaks since there are no cracks between concrete-blocks to any connecting room and to make it even better just spray the walls and floor with some type of water-seal to protect the concrete.
    - Noise - No cracks in walls so the house should be quite isolated from external noise.
    - Easy to add thermal and noise isolation in the building, just add a foam-spray nossle to the robot and you can have automatic isolatio
  • Five years ago, my opinion is that the next revolution in technology would be some sort of home lathe. You could buy or create designs of any 3d object, buy a block of material put it into the home lathe and the object would come out. It would be revolutionary because transport of complicated, fragile objects would be dramatically reduced. Excess material could be returned for recycling (and credit), distribution networks for many objects would be dramatically simplifed.

    When I saw this, it was my first t
  • What are these things building on? The article doesn't even mention that as far as I can tell. Are they starting with a flat surface? I assume they're not starting with an undeveloped lot. Are they 'printing' directly on the soil or are they starting on a concrete foundation of some sort? If they're relying on humans to pour the foundations, the robots are going to have to account for human error. Human error happens a lot when pouring a foundation though most often in ways that don't mean much to a h
  • by asuffield ( 111848 ) <asuffield@suffields.me.uk> on Monday January 15, 2007 @10:26AM (#17613092)
    With the new developments vastly increasing the ease of reproduction of buildings, and the sudden upsurge in building piracy costing the industry over $10bn per year, it is necessary to implement strong rights management in order to prevent people from illegally producing buildings without paying a license fee to the architectural design firm. To provide fair compensation to the children of architects, new laws are being introduced that require all buildings to be made from approved construction materials that implement the StaysUpForSure protocol, which allows software monitoring and control of every component, in the "Fair House Prices for Children Act".

    The "Walls" house operating software (included with every new house purchase) scans all components of the house, several times a second, to check for unauthorised modifications or attempted duplication. It contacts the central licensing servers once a day to ensure that this design of house is licensed for construction at this location, validated against its built-in GPS receiver. If the GPS receiver cannot receive a signal, or the licensing server does not report that the building is approved at the current location, or the component validator detects unauthorised modifications, then the software will signal all the construction materials to shut down, causing the house to collapse and protecting you from the dangers of building piracy.

    Building insurance companies welcomed the move, saying: "Before now, when a house fell down, we had to spend money on careful investigations to identify whether the house was constructed from properly licensed blueprints - but now we can be sure that any collapsed house is the result of building piracy, which voids the insurance policy".

How many NASA managers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? "That's a known problem... don't worry about it."