There’s been a lot of buzz around the concept of 3D printing in recent years, and it only seems to be getting louder as more devices capable of “printing” solid objects from a computer hit the market or receive crowd funding. The intensity of discussion about them reached a crescendo recently when plans for a fully 3D-printed gun hit the Internet (and were subsequently pulled), and now we’re even hearing about new plans to build entire houses using the machines.
It’s that last bit that got the Movoto bloggers interested, naturally. We’re used to seeing houses built out of wood, brick, steel, and even glass by contractors and teams of workers. But the idea of an entire house being printed out by a machine connected to a computer? That sounds like the stuff of science fiction.
Like most of my fellow bloggers, I’m a huge sci-fi buff. Given that we’re due to get our own 3D printer here in the Movoto office soon, I pretty much couldn’t be more excited by the possibilities the technology introduces. So, with that, I thought I’d look into exactly how realistic it would be to print the components needed to build a house using one of these devices. The answer: not at all.
In fact, it would take 220 years, four months, and 11 days for a single machine to print all 27,735 bricks required to construct an average-sized 2,500 square foot, two story house. Not only that, they would cost $332,820 in plastic. This isn’t even considering a variety of other issues, costs, and delays that could arise.
Keep reading for a glimpse into what I learned while researching this monumental undertaking of manufacturing.
3D Printing: Building the Future
The concepts behind modern 3D printing were devised in the late 1980s by a man by the name of Charles Hull. Since Chuck first started his “rapid prototyping” of various objects using large, expensive, slow-working machines, 3D printers have gotten smaller, less expensive, and, well, a little bit faster.
I decided to base my calculations on the MakerBot Replicator 2, one of the most popular and widely used consumer-level 3D printers available today. One of these machines will set you back $2,199 and uses a printhead that melts plastic and lays it down into overlapping layers as it cools in order to build objects.
Now that you’ve got some background, it’s onto the process.
How I Printed a 3D House
The first step to figuring out how long it would take to print a house on a unit like this was to ask an expert. Thankfully, we have one. Movoto software engineer Daniel Culveyhouse is the person who spearheaded our plans to acquire a 3D printer and graciously offered to lend his know-how to the project. I obviously accepted.
For our building unit, we picked a standard-sized brick, which measures 8 x 3.5 x 2.75 inches. Based on the print speed of the Replicator 2, we calculated that it would take 2.9 days to print one solid brick of plastic at this size using the machine’s mid-range .255 millimeter detail setting (this is a brick, after all, not a highly detailed figurine).
What’s more, the amount of ABS plastic required to create one brick (262 cubic centimeters) would cost about $12 per brick (MakerBot sells 1kg of ABS for $48 and each brick weighs 262g). By comparison, Home Depot sells standard red clay bricks at 30 cents a pop.
Based on our calculations for a 2,500 square foot, single level home built using a single 8-inch layer of bricks for its walls, the components would take 220 years, four months, and 11 days to print and cost $332,820.
You can see how much time—and money—it would take to print a house the size of yours using the calculator we created above.
No matter how large or small your house, this process is, of course, ridiculous. Then again, so is building a house using plastic bricks spit out one at a time. With that in mind, I wanted to figure out how many of the machines it would take to get the job done within a reasonably normal amount of time. Given that constructing a traditional home takes around four months, I decided to use that as a time frame. Since one Replicator 2 could make about 40 bricks in that time, it would take 2,011 machines to print all 27,735 bricks in the same time period at a total cost of $4.4 million for the hardware alone (at $2,199 per printer).
All of these estimates don’t take into consideration potential hiccups with the process, such as printing errors and clogged print heads. These will only add to the time (for cleaning and reprints) and cost (for wasted plastic).
The Reality of 3D Printed Houses
Like I said, this process is ridiculous—no matter how you look at it. Still, it had to be done in order to make some sense of all this hubbub about how you’ll supposedly soon be able to print everything from cars to houses. The truth of the matter is that you won’t, despite the fact that the technology will keep getting cheaper and faster with every passing year.
When you read stories about houses being built with 3D printers, the people proposing these projects aren’t talking about doing so using the sort of devices you and I can get for our homes. For example, that house I mentioned at the start of this post would be built using a 20-foot-tall printer capable of creating components 7.2 x 7.2 x 11.5 feet in size. Others are planning to use bizarre lattice-like structures that are much easier (and faster) to print.
Still, it’s really exciting to think that even with small home 3D printers, we’re inching closer to the stuff of sci-fi, with the meals, clothes, and other capabilities of Star Trek’s replicators seeming like less fiction and more science. I’ll just be happy when I can print a replacement for the chess piece that went missing last week…
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