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Navy Helps Fund 3D Printing of Buildings

by Bryant Jordan on January 20, 2014

3D HouseAdd to guns and prosthetic hands something much bigger and heavier forming from the nozzle of a 3D printer — buildings “printed” out of concrete.

Partially funded by the Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation Countour Crafting is trying to develop 3D printed buildings using concrete. Company founder Behrokh Khoshnevis is a professor and director of Manufacturing Engineering Graduate Program at the University of Southern California.

Concrete printers would be able to build a 2,500-square-foot building within a single day, according to Khoshnevis.

For the military, that means soldiers deploying to a remote location with little or no infrastructure could be operating out of permanent structures pretty soon after a combat engineer unit arrived with printers and material aboard a C-17.

Essentially, building via printer would work just like any computer assisted manufacturing program. But instead of a robotic tap and die machine turning out parts according to a program, it would be an oversized printer following programmed schematics to lay down, layer by layer, a building, including outside and interior walls, spaces for doors and windows and all electrical, plumbing and air-conditioning conduits, according to Khoshnevis’ website.

In a video of a presentation he made last year Khoshnevis says the machines he is working with now are capable of printing out concrete walls able to bear a compressive stress of 10,000 pounds per square inch. According to the Portland Concrete Association, which represents concrete manufacturers nationwide, conventional concrete has a psi of 7,000 or less.

Anything above that, up to 14,500 psi, is considered high strength.

Building construction is about the only thing that is not automated today, Khoshnevis says. At the same time it kills about 10,000 people a year and injures about 400,000.

Given the history of U.S. military and related missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Khoshnevis observations on other aspects of conventional construction should also have meaning to the Pentagon.

“The [existing] process is pretty corruption prone,” he said. “It’s very costly and always over budget.”

Looking even further ahead, and farther away, Khoshnevis says 3D construction is likely the solution to be “one of the very few feasible approaches for building structures on the Moon and Mars, which are being targeted for human colonization before the end of the new century.”

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

wholewheatoast January 20, 2014 at 5:53 am

I guess by mixing concrete with stronger epoxies that could increase the strength and lessen the amount of concrete being used

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Hunter76 January 20, 2014 at 9:37 am

There are no epoxies in concrete. Mixing epoxy in concrete would damage both.

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thearock January 20, 2014 at 9:17 am

For concrete you mix cement, water, and an aggregate into a slurry which is then formed into a structure. The mixture can be varied by each of the ingredients, then formed into a final shape either by setting in a form or by blowing to a shape. It is difficult to imagine the boulder dam being 3d printed, or what type of printer nozzle you would need to shoot aggregate of varying size. But if you can build a house could you not also build a BLT on toast with mayo. Would that still be printing or replicating?

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Hunter76 January 20, 2014 at 9:40 am

If you don't mind a BLT made out of concrete.

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BlackOwl18E January 20, 2014 at 11:49 am

In the future, it looks like jobs in construction will be very few.

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blight_ January 20, 2014 at 6:15 pm

"We need jobs…ban labor-saving machines!"

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Stan January 20, 2014 at 12:09 pm

Now that's cool. BUT, what if you want reinforced concrete? I mean it's great if we save on military contractors charging the taxpayers through the nose during oversea deployments where you don't care too much about a structure surviving an earthquake or the next 50 years. If you wanted good old reinforced conctrete looks like you would still have to set up the structure with manual labor and pour it in.

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Ben January 20, 2014 at 12:46 pm

Rebar will probably become a possibility as the tech matures. Really, all that would have to happen is run it through a machine to shape it, then put it in place as the concrete is printed.

Otherwise, Contour Crafting opens up a world of possibilities in building shape and design. It's now just as easy to make rounded walls and ceilings as it is to make flat ones. Changing the building's shape alone may be enough to strengthen it against earthquakes. They can even print hollow walls with various patterns of concrete mesh to strengthen it in place of rebar.

Think beyond the military and conventional building techniques. This opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

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FormerDirtDart January 20, 2014 at 6:18 pm

Here is their video on reinforcement, plumbing and electrical network installation.
The reinforcement is an assembled throughout pouring application, as opposed to traditional rebar. Undoubtedly, the costs will soar for this type of construction. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rH7vtQlS_XQ

And, here are the companies collection of concept videos http://www.contourcrafting.org/animation-video/

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Joe_Sovereign January 22, 2014 at 4:51 pm

Scientist have just figured out how to recreate the formula of ancient Roman Concrete which is orders of magnitude more durable than Portland Concrete which is todays global standard. Roman Concrete structures have withstood 2000+ years submerged in sea water with no degradation. If the 3D printers can print with Roman Concrete we can leave behind our instant buildings for future millennia.

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rtsy January 20, 2014 at 12:16 pm

Would doing this with a different material be cheaper? ie- Steel frame with steel walls

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LtKitty January 20, 2014 at 5:10 pm

About 2 months ago I bought a 3D printer to build my own robotic hand designs just for fun. I'm glad to see 3D printing technology is not only getting cheaper and more reliable, but also more widespread in application. Someday we may even print our own food.

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rtsy January 20, 2014 at 6:20 pm

Good god I hope I never have to eat a printed steak or freshly made 3D salad….

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Stan January 21, 2014 at 12:28 pm

My salads are invariably freshly made and always 3D.

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Chris Sky January 22, 2014 at 1:43 am
dan mullock January 20, 2014 at 10:18 pm

Since low cost powdered titanium is now a reality, maybe the navy should try to 3d print a titanium fighting vessel, or assemble it from 3d print components. 3d printing of titanium onto autoclave aerated concrete substrates for example could make incredibly strong, light weight and corrosiion proof hull components for combat ships. much more robust in a fire fight than aluminum such as used in LCS class vessels.

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Tony January 21, 2014 at 1:14 am

The military has a habit of turning temporary facility and making it permanent. As mission changes, can these facilities be remodeled to meet the change and flexibility that is needed? Can additions be added at any point of the structure, like a second floor or additional wings after a period of time has gone by. What about copy rights, like heating and air conditioning units? How do we trian maint. Personnel to take care of the facilities infrastructure. This a good idea for shells of buildings. A good team can build K-SPANs just as quick.

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Casy O. Cofer January 21, 2014 at 3:36 pm

Readily available concrete can be enhanced with many admixtures. I am proposing the: superplasticizer – silica fume – polyvinyl alcohol fibers for added: workability – compressive strength – and polyvinyl alcohol fibers actually bond to the concrete itself providing strength with no corrosive potentialities.
The Contour Crafting is very advanced. I want to add something I feel is very important to consider. The entire building need not be constructed by this method. For approval purposes, entire building construction is not even preferable. Rather, think modularly. Building multi-story structures has proven to be most efficient. The finishing work floor by floor takes the most time. Smaller, steel track-based, concrete printers capable of being installed on a solid, prepared, and inspected floor could quickly build custom apartment designs in a magnificent array of floor plans. Individual floors could be designed with 19 feet ceilings allowing the concrete printer to build to a height of ~17 feet or two custom stories on one standard floor; this configuration could allow for the option of 19 feet ceilings in some units. Critically, I hope to see the Contour crafting industry become a reality, but I think that smaller steel-track based modular units capable of nearly finished custom designed multi-unit dwellings on multi-story structures will best allow for this technologies market entrance. I believe Mr. Khoushnevis and Mrs. Napolitano can make this vision a reality. There is so much that can be achieved with innovation. America’s future rests on our ability to be creative and innovate. Thank You for reading this message.

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Chuang Shyue Chou January 21, 2014 at 9:40 pm

Why can't building just be oursourced? What would this technology add to the US military? Bunkers?

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Tom Billings January 21, 2014 at 11:21 pm

While building local structures *can* be outsourced, that usually inflates whatever degree of local corruption in the housing industry already exists. This technology will makes structures for *support* of the fighting men and their equipment. Yes, you *can* maintain machinery in the open, but doing it in a building keeps out the dirt better when you are working on a precision engine with high tolerances. It can build hospitals. It can build warehouses for everything storable. It can build administration buildings where everything from underwear washing to intelligence gathering can be organized, out of the weather.

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Ben January 22, 2014 at 11:58 am

Because this tech has implications far beyond the military…

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Elena R January 22, 2014 at 1:41 pm

Check this guy out. He built 3D printer in his garage all by himself. And already has results with concrete walls. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=97QPzhroF94&fe

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRdOgVuMWuE

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w davis January 22, 2014 at 9:03 pm

why use a large cad? A building that can be poured rapidly is already possible by the use of Styrofoam block forms. the only other need for what the military needs would be to have a slightly thicker wall. The up side to using the block forms is the building would be insulated at the same time. A fast setting mix would work but a foundation to set this on would need time to cure to be able to withstand the weight of the wall structure. The computer geeks obviously do not know enough about concrete to make these claims of possible construction times. It is a good idea but it wouldn't work unless they can find a super concrete that will cure is minutes even if it was a dry pack mixture which is the only way I see this working at all.

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Rob Hendricks January 22, 2014 at 9:37 pm

Nasa is also trying to use this technology to 3D print moon bases without people being present:
http://3dprintboard.com/showthread.php?1198-NASA-To-3D-Print-Moon-Bases

They plan to start within 5-10 years. Pretty incredible!

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JALarson January 23, 2014 at 8:27 am

Moving a military division is basically moving a small city, then operating it in locations with no infrastructure. The Lessons Learned in Afghan/Iraq is moving those supplies & operating infrastructure is expensive. We spent almost $1B renting CONEX containers plus more $M buying trailers for housing.

Given a FOB-based war, tents no longer work. A cost-effective concept is that the pre-loaded shipping containers (a world standard) become the needed infrastructure.

This saves money, time, manpower, and provides better conditions for soldiers/sailors/Marines/airmen. If you get creative, CONEX can be a hospital, an armored wall (HESCO plus), a gun tower, a barracks, an ops ctr, etc. They can be easily armored with dirt (a CONEX can support many tons on top of it). Just reducing unloading/reloading can save thousands of man-hours (see the British Army analysis re modular ammo system).

Just watch Baghdad ER.

Imagine having 20,000 soldiers with secure housing, modular operations, and a working toilet system (diseases are still a major casualty source).
http://www.slideshare.net/James8981/conex-3034422

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