3-D Printed Walls

Mark L. Johnson / December 2017

One year ago in Russia, Apis Cor “3-D printed” an entire house and painted the interior in 24 hours. A giant robotic arm poured concrete mixed with fibers and additives to form load-bearing walls. It’s only 400 square feet in size, but the house has a hallway, bathroom, living room and kitchen. Cost: $10,134.
    
Apis Cor’s tagline is “We print buildings.” Now let’s stop and think about that. Watching a single automated crane complete its work in a day is impressive. (See youtu.be/xktwDfasPGQ.) But is this printing? Let me check my lingo: I can plaster a wall. Yes. I can assemble a wall and pour a wall. Yes. But, print a wall? I’ve never heard of that before.

3-D Printing Defined
3-D printing is additive manufacturing. Layers of material are formed under computer control to create objects. So by definition, Apis Cor’s house in Russia was 3-D printed.
    
Not so fast, my industry sources say. Pouring a house with a special concrete mix and calling it “printing” is a bit of a stretch.
    
“3-D printing involves small, detailed, incredibly accurate objects,” says David Keane, virtual design and construction specialist at Baker Drywall Prefab in Dallas.
    
For example, our industry might use 3-D printers to create models of assemblies and miniature buildings. Creating mock-ups is important for architects and GCs to make good construction decisions. Some wall and ceiling firms use augmented reality headsets and software to produce digital mock-ups, which appear to the viewers as holograms. But, printing a mini wall or ceiling can be useful, too.
    
“Printing a building in miniature so people can touch and feel it and interact with it is an exciting development,” says Travis Vap, president of South Valley Drywall, Littleton, Colo.
    
Anyway, think of 3-D printing as involving small objects. Big objects like houses can now be built through mechanization.

Disruption to Come
I believe Apis Cor’s construction mechanization technology will disrupt aspects of our business. The company’s robotic cranes can construct buildings three stories high. The cranes work quickly. And they’re mobile.
    
And others, such Randek, are introducing robotic manufacturing systems. It’s just a matter of finding practical uses for these machines on jobs. This isn’t always easy. Environments have to be controlled. The equipment is often large and restricted in its use. Even if you wanted to buy a machine, you’d be entering a whole new ballgame. You would need knowledge of machine technology, manufacturing engineering and the robotic sciences. Are you ready for that? My take: You will need to be.
    
The mechanization of applying material to create walls and ceilings has a long history. You can read about it in March 2018 when AWCI issues the book, “Celebrating 100 Years of Industry Growth with the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry.”
    
Note this for now: Plastering pumps and applicators arrived in the late 1940s and grew in use during the 1950s. They were game-changers. They sped up work processes and, more importantly, they transferred work from plasterers to laborers. The plasterers union had a fit trying to keep work within its purview. Laborers and plasterers bickered over the thickness of material that would trigger a change in contract jurisdiction. AWCI wrote agreements with the unions to set the rules for using plastering machines on the industry’s jobs.
    
The point is, mechanization turned the industry upside-down in the 1950s. I think it’s happening again. We should “print” little houses anyway. Lots of countries need solutions for quick, low-cost housing, and many Americans are in love with living in tiny houses. A hotel-room–size house in 24 hours? There’s a market for that.
    
“It will have a niche, a very exciting niche,” Vap says. “But we’ll get innovation for our industry.”
    
That’s my point. Innovation is coming to our industry. No, 3-D printers will not take away our work contracts. But they will—somehow, some way—bring more work to the industry firms that harness this new type of mechanization.
    
Just think. We plastered walls in the 1950s. It’s the 2010s, and now we’re “printing” them, too. What comes next?

Mark L. Johnson writes regularly about trends affecting construction firms. Reach him at @markjohnsoncomm, and at linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.