In the mid-2000s, when 3D-printing technology hit the mainstream, the possibilities seemed endless. Just before the turn of the millennium, the first bioprinted human organ—a bladder—was successfully transplanted into a patient. Large-scale 3D printing was achievable by 2000, and five years later, the first at-home 3D printer was released. In 2013, former U.S. president Barack Obama declared in his State of the Union address that 3D printing “has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything”—including noble initiatives like affordable prosthetic limbs, as well as wider accessibility to controversial items, such as 3D-printed guns. A new era seems to be taking shape, one perhaps more like the science fiction world of Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel The Diamond Age, where the code for nearly anything can be downloaded and printed.
Particularly in design, there have been significant strides in 3D-printing houses. Chinese company WinSun was the first company to build a 3D-printed home, and in 2013, it printed 10 in a 24-hour period. The homes still required human assembly: The walls were printed in the company’s Suzhou factory and transported to their respective sites. Last year, San Francisco startup Apis Core successfully built a low-slung dwelling in Russia on location in a day, costing around $10,000, so did photo prints in Canada brand.
Like the automotive industry, where individual car parts can be 3D-printed cheaply, housing can benefit from partially printed construction, too. This year, the city of Dubai mandated that within seven years, a quarter of every new building must be 3D-printed; in addition to cutting costs, it would minimize the number of construction workers needed, in a country with a horrendous history of labor abuse. (Dubai, it’s worth noting, already has the first 3D-printed office building, courtesy of WinSun.)
Whether or not the city’s goal is achievable remains to be seen. While there are a ton of benefits to the technology—printers can create any shape and combine any number of materials, such as sand, concrete, and fibers, into “ink”—it’s still in its infancy. The pioneers of the business are also still getting over the hurdles of building a single-story home in a way that’s time- and cost-effective. This summer, a family in Nantes, France, had the honor of being the first family to inhabit a 3D-printed residence, called the “Yhnova” project. While it only took 54 hours to print the house, it took an additional four months to add the windows, doors, roof, and appliances. It cost about $232,000 to build, which the BBC estimated is about 20 percent cheaper than a comparable non-printed home.
Amid all of the various startups and institutions throwing their printers in the ring, the overarching vision has seemed to be a bit of a toss-up. Who will it help? Is it a realistic and sustainable construction method that can scale up? Through examining the existing projects and new developments, we’ve identified three different goals of the industry that have taken shape, shared below.