The degree of acceptance of 3D printing has been astonishing.
The concept has been around for a couple of decades and was called additive manufacturing, or fast prototyping, depending on the use that was made of it. But when someone tagged it with the name 3D printing the idea took off.
Within a year or two, companies developed small 3D printers and the price dropped. And dropped. Then dropped again. Now you can find them on Amazon.ca for as little as $624.
Those low-end printers were and are used mostly by hobbyists, but while they got the publicity, a lot of serious development work was being done in the background. In the process, 3D printing became serious technology.
Now we have an American start-up, Osiris Biomed LLC, that aims to print implants on demand during reconstructive surgery. The company can do a live scan of the patient and print the implant — a new thigh-bone, for example, or a new cheekbone — while the patient is in surgery.
DCN readers might be more interested in the uses the architecture-engineering-construction sector is making of 3D printing.
Architects are finding that a printed model of a proposed building is useful to show clients during the design stage. Changes can be made to suit the client, a revised model is printed and shown to the client. There are 3D printing firms that are already making a specialty of such service.
All sorts of things can be used as the "ink," in 3D printing. It can be various metals, cement-based mortar, plastic, even construction waste ground up and mixed with cement. Then the print head moves around the site, extruding "ink" in a pattern that has been loaded into the computer that drives the process. It follows, then, that mud can also be used, and an Italian 3D printing firm named WASP has developed an easily transportable printer that can quickly create basic houses from mud and natural fibres that are usually already available in the impoverished areas where such basic housing is needed. It’s just a high-tech way of building houses from adobe bricks.
The Chinese have done several demonstration projects using the 3D process, including one in which they "printed" 10 buildings in a day. That’s where they used construction waste in the process.
The Shanghai-based firm WinSun Decoration Design Engineering, has "printed" and shown off a five-storey apartment. They are calling it the "world’s tallest 3D-printed building." Right next door they printed a building that looks much like an old Georgian mansion with a floor area of 1,100 square metres.
Printing 10 buildings in one day involved pre-printing walls that were then lifted into position. The roofs, however, are conventional. Apparently the 3D process hasn’t advanced far enough yet to do roofs.
But looking at photos of those buildings under construction made me think that precasters ought to be interested in 3D printing.
Things like walls, floor panels and stairs lend themselves to precasting, especially since the 3D process allows cavities and spaces to be left for wiring and plumbing. Other things are possible too, like architectural detailing that would be too complex to build using any other technology. That gives architects a wider range of options to show their clients.
As for 3D printed housing, one headline I saw told me that "You may soon be living in a 3D-printed apartment."
Hardly. Again, looking at photos showed me an interior space that could be lived in, although most North Americans probably wouldn’t want to. But China is still an emerging economy in many respects. They are playing catch-up, building immense housing projects for people whose previous homes might have been in a peasant village.
Still, as 3D technology becomes more firmly entrenched in the main stream, people are not only perfecting the technology but finding new ways to make it useful.
Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.