Contour crafting is the name of a recent breakthrough in the engineering world combining construction and 3D printing technology. The end result is a robot that can 3D print homes in less than a day. The innovator behind contour crafting is Behrokh Khoshnevis, a professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering, and the Director of Manufacturing Engineering Graduate Program at the University of Southern California (USC).
At a TEDx speech in 2012 Khoshnevis presented the idea of contour crafting to an audience. He begins by reminding everyone of Maslow’s basic human needs, and points out that food and shelter are the foundations of our lives. Despite shelter being a basic human need, billions of people around the world live in slums, be it in underpopulated or overpopulated regions. Industries of every type, including agriculture, pharmaceuticals, weaponry, automotive, etc. implement a fleet of fully automated robotics to manufacture their products. Industries of every type, except the construction industry.
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Despite modern day construction being slow, labor intensive, and inefficient, no serious technological revolution has ever occurred in the industry. Contour crafting has enough momentum and potential to change that once and for all.
Remember that lovely time in 2008 when the whole economy crashed and no one was laughing but the banks? What was the main cause of the crash again? That’s right, subprime mortgage loans; the devil himself. People couldn’t afford a home, so banks loaned these people exorbitant amounts of money, an amount they could never feasibly pay back. We know the rest of the story, but let’s revisit the beginning: People couldn’t afford a home. So many people around the world cannot afford one of the most basic human needs: a shelter. No wonder so many people end up renting property their entire lives. And those are the lucky ones. With the number of homeless people worldwide at 100 million in 2005, the world yearns for a construction revolution.
According to Khoshnevis, modern day construction is dangerous, wasteful, and due to the management process, highly corruptible. All of these factors contribute to inefficiency and a higher costs for homeowners and society as a whole. Contour crafting on the other hand cuts out the waste, danger, and human error by using only a CAD program and sophisticated robot to build a customized structure in less than 24 hours.
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It’s obvious that an automated, robotic 3D printing system will make operations safer, quicker, and cheaper, but what is not obvious is the level of precision and customizable designs involved in contour crafting. Having direct access over the mind of the builder (the contour crafting robot) allows designers to delve into whole new avenues of creative architecture while still retaining optimal structural integrity.
Khoshnevis shows examples of houses featuring curved walls and exotic geometries with enough reinforcement to withstand high intensity earthquakes in Jordan. Need some extra support? It’s easy for a contour crafting robot to line the walls and foundation of the house with a steel mesh. This type of design would cost thousands more with traditional construction methods.
Printing these exotic designs will cost exactly the same as printing a traditional rectangular box shape home since it’s just a matter of changing the initial design. The building method, speed, and builder are always the same. Building costs will depend solely upon the material and size of the desired structure, not the design. Who knows, maybe contour crafting will one day become a new weekend expenditure. “We’ve had this house all week, let’s design and print a new one.”
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Contour crafting builds structures in layers. The material the printers currently use is a concrete. This concrete is sprayed out of a nozzle in a desired pattern and overall shape. As the printer autonomously lays down the foundation and frame of the house, it simultaneously installs all of the plumbing, electricity, and structural reinforcements. Eventually contour crafting will also be able to handle tiling, carpeting, and even painting too. Literally every square inch of a finished house is accounted for. Check out the building process in the video below. It reminds me so much of building a house in the Sims computer game.
What’s more, due to the precision of the contour crafting printer the structural integrity of the concrete has a strength measured at 10,000 psi, compared to 3,000 psi in traditional concrete structures.
There is no reason the printers cannot use more sustainable materials like cob or adobe as well. After all, NASA has funded a project that will implement contour crafting printers on the moon and Mars. 90% of the materials used in the lunar printer will be gathered from the moon itself with only 10% of construction materials coming from Earth.
We print houses now. Welcome to the future.