Although household 3D printers are a relatively new fad, the process, which was originally called Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM), developed during the 1980’s. During this time, the main use of ALM was “Rapid Prototyping,” which allowed manufacturers to create representative models quickly and inexpensively out of plastic polymers.
For those unaware of the process, ALM creates a solid object by stacking layers, slice by slice, from the bottom-up. By creating objects this way, the layers can be very complex which allows ALM to produce moving parts, like hinges and wheels. Modern machines are capable of printing one object from several materials, including plastics, metals, ceramics, and even chocolate!
There are several methods for manufacturing products by ALM; the most common for home printers is Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), which produces an object by extruding melted material that immediately hardens after leaving the nozzle. On an industrial level, a common method is Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), which uses a high power laser to fuse small particles of plastic, metal, ceramic or glass powders into a single mass.
In the early 2000’s, Loughborough University, UK, began a project to create the first printed building. Rupert Soar formed the Freeform Construction Group to explore how existing technologies could be expanded to large scale construction. In 2005, the group secured funding to build a machine that would use components like concrete pumping, spray concrete, and gantry systems to print an entire structure.
In 2014, Chinese company WinSun took this technology a step further by printing the first multi-story building (five levels and 11,840 square foot), complete with decorative elements inside and out, at Suzhou Industrial Park. The machine was developed by Ma Yihe, who has more than a decade of experience in designing 3D Printing Arrays, and is 20 feet tall, 33 feet wide, and 132 feet long.
“The machine uses a mixture of ground construction and industrial waste, such as glass and tailings, around a base of quick-drying cement mixed with a special hardening agent,” CNET reports. The parts are produced in large pieces at WinSun's facility and the structure was “then assembled on-site, complete with steel reinforcements and insulation in order to comply with official building standards.”
By using this technology, construction waste can be reduced by more than a third, while production time and labor costs can be decreased by almost three quarters. Using recycled materials also eliminates the need for quarried stone, which is better for the bottom-line and for the environment.