Can 3D printing solve the global housing crisis?
In today’s Finshots we talk about 3D printing and the affordable housing project
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You wouldn’t equate India Post Office to anything revolutionary, would you?
Well, you may soon have to. You see, the stuffy, boring entity that delivers postal mail across the country is setting up a 3D printed post office in Bengaluru. And the best part? It is expected to take only a month and cost only ₹25 lakhs. If they had gone the traditional route, it seems the project would have cost them 4 times as much.
But it got us thinking, “If 3D printing is so profitable, why not just use it to solve the affordable housing problem?”
After all, 40% of the world’s population will need affordable homes by 2030. And we would need to build 96,000 houses every day to house these people. It is certainly a tall order. So why not use 3D printers instead to speed things up?
Well, the answer is a bit more complicated than a simple yes or no.
But before we get to that, let’s first look at how 3D printed houses work.
First, you prepare the desired design using special software. Then you hook it up to a huge 3D printer – a 15 feet high machine. Next, a special concrete mix is fed into the printer. Typically, this mix is much thicker than regular concrete. It hardens better and faster. Now suppose you want to build a rectangular room – the machine can pour concrete in a rectangular motion, line after line, to build a room. If you want a curved piece, it’s that simple. Think of it like icing on a cake.
Obviously, this method saves time. And you don’t need so many hands on deck either.
There is also another big advantage: durability.
See, the construction industry creates almost 30% of all the waste in the world. This includes things like packing materials, excess cement, wood, bricks, and other materials left behind. With a 3D printed house, builders only need to print exactly what they need. And you could minimize waste that way.
For instance, in Malawi3D printing has reduced construction waste almost 10 times and even reduced CO2 emissions by up to 70%.
So if it’s faster, cheaper and more environmentally friendly, what’s stopping the world from embracing it to address the affordable housing crisis?
Well, the first problem is scale. Although 3D printing has been around for a few decades, it hasn’t set the scene on fire. Take for example the United States. There are probably a dozen companies that are seriously getting into 3D printing. In India, the numbers look even worse. Additionally, companies looking to enter the industry have to make a massive one-time investment and unless they get massive construction orders for 3D printed homes, it’s not a viable business.
Then there’s the issue with 3D printing itself. While many companies have been able to take advantage of massive 3D printers to build unique structures, they have not been able to consistently print functional buildings until now. Like an article Remarks— “Conventional buildings are not made by extrusion or casting or any other unique manufacturing process; they are additions of dozens of different techniques, from poured and cast concrete to spot-welded steel extrusions to laminated glass. How could one process replace the dozens of others we currently use? Yes, that’s part of the promise of 3D printing – that it’s versatile enough to do the work of multiple machines – but today’s printed buildings are either not very functional or beautiful, pavilions or houses that are essentially silly printed boxes with traditional bric-a-brac plastered on.”
The third problem is that of incentives. The government has rightly recognized that 3D printing can be used for very specific use cases. Maybe even the “affordable housing project”. But unless they can induce manufacturers to make massive investments, things won’t go quite the way you expect.
And finally, affordable housing needs more than just cost-effective construction methods. You need affordable land. And since land is scarce, you can only do this job if you start printing multi-storey houses. However, 3D printing machines have not yet been deployed to build such houses.
So yes, there is a long way to go before we can all start 3D printing houses. But hopefully we will find a solution for affordable housing one way or another.