June 05, 2008

Built for Speed: Printing Buildings

Contour Crafting is an effort to scale up rapid prototyping/manufacturing (a billion dollar industry to make 3 dimensional parts) and inkjet printing techniques to the scale of building multi-story buildings and vehicles. The process could accelerate the trillion dollar (US only) construction industry by 200 times. Projections indicate costs will be around one fifth as much as conventional construction. (Land prices are unchanged, so the actual prices of homes would not change as much in say Hawaii, Tokyo, Manhattan or San Francisco). Using this process, a single house or a colony of houses, each with possibly a different design, may be automatically constructed in a single run, embedded in each house all the conduits for electrical, plumbing and air-conditioning. [H/T to a reader Bonesteel] Contour crafting could be one part of a new manufacturing revolution

The machine will cost between $500K to $700K for average size (2000 sq ft -- 200 m2) detached houses. This is not much given that a concrete pump truck is now $300k-$400K. Note that with one machine numerous homes can be built. The first commercial machines to be available this year, 2008. The machine will be collapsible to form into an easy truck load. The unloading and setup will take between 1-2 hours.

Behrokh Khoshnevis is the visionary who has been driving this concept. He is the Director of the Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies (CRAFT) and Director of Manufacturing Engineering Graduate Program at USC.

Initial plan is to use the technology for emergency shelters and low-income housing in underdeveloped countries (Mexico, with the demand for nearly 500,000 houses per year, seems to be a good starting choice for implementation), almost immediately after its development they will address local building codes for commercial deployment of CC in the US.

Because of the unprecedented speed of CC construction, attendant improvements in the construction inspection process will be required. They plan to develop advanced sensory systems and information technologies for automated real-time inspection and feedback to municipal computers overseeing ongoing CC construction activities at various locations.

Competing Construction Automation
There are two categories of automation considered by the Japanese construction companies. The first uses single task robots that can replace simple labor
activities at the construction sites. Single task robots can be classified by four different types- concrete floor finishing, spray painting, tile inspection, and material handling.

The second category consists of fully automated systems that can construct high
raised steel buildings or steel reinforced concrete buildings using prefabricated
components. An example of this approach is Big-Canopy, which is the world’s first automated construction system for building a precisely defined concrete structure and has four independent masts supporting an overhead crane which delivers components at the control of a simple joystick. All tasks are scheduled and controlled by a centralised information control system. The introduction of robotics at construction sites has contributed to productivity, safety, and quality improvements. Yet, the contribution of robotics at current levels is not revolutionary and current automation approaches are still geared toward conventional processes. Automating conventional processes (such as using a brick laying robot) is invariably expensive, hence the associated cost saving is minimal. Fast changing construction requirements and project complexities create complicated requirements and exceptional challenges for automation technology to meet.

The Big Canopy construction system can be divided into the following subsystems:
· a roof supported by four tower crane posts, which are situated outside the building
· a complex hoist system with three cranes mounted against the roof
· a jib crane on the roof to mount and to dismantle the tower crane posts
· a high-speed construction lift to all floors
· all components bar-coded for easy identification
· a material management system to manage the flow of materials and components

The Big Canopy automated construction system ensures good working and environmental conditions, shorter construction time (about 13% less), less waste and improved overall productivity (0.9% less cost).

There are Prefabricated homes
Modular homes
Panelized homes

Panelized home construction can complete the project in 90 days from the time we begin to dig. Custom plans generally take four-to-six months from start of construction to finish. The weather-tight shell finished in days, as opposed to the many weeks required with "site framing."

So all prior efforts to improve building construction are vastly inferior to contour construction if contour construction delivers on its goals.

Three subsystems are required to build a complete house in one day. The Extrudable Materials and Fabrication (EMF) thrust will research and develop materials, extrusion systems, and structures built by extrusion of materials. The Modular Components and Assembly (MCA) thrust will research and develop the non-extrudable components required by the grand challenge ­ such as reinforcement, electrical, plumbing, and sensor systems ­ and on the robots required both to assemble these components and to deploy the extrusion systems developed by the first thrust. The Integrated Software Systems (ISS) thrust will research and develop the software needed to go from design through construction, including planning and controlling the behavior of the multitude of robots to be developed by the previous thrust, and providing the logistical support required for constructing a house in a day, or beyond this to constructing a full community in a small number of days.

Environmental benefits
Globally more than 40 percent of all raw materials are consumed in the construction process. Each of the 6 million new houses built in the United States have 3-7 tons of waste from construction.

This concept is like the inflatable electric car idea. Rethinking the process for how a major segment of our economy works to enable cost breakthroughs.

Inflatable cars and scaling up printer technology for making buildings are the kind of powerful ideas that could enable acceleration of economic growth even without successful development super technologies (like fusion, molecular nanotechnology or super artificial intelligence). It is similar to how Henry Ford's mass production methods accelerated economic growth at the beginning of 1900s. However, there is no reason we cannot re-invent the car and construction and develop super technologies. So even without molecular nanotechnology there
could be a step up in economic growth rate with ideas like this and inflatable electric cars. These ideas are also very compatible with a nanofactory world.

Youtube Contour Crafting videos

Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies at the University of Southern California

The goal of the Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies (CRAFT) is to develop the science and engineering needed for rapid automated fabrication of objects of various size up to mega-scale structures such as, boats, industrial objects, public art and whole building structures.

Selective Inhibition sintering (SIS) method is capable of making plastic as well as metallic parts without the use of laser.

Megascale fabrication article

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