How 3D-printing 10 buildings in a day could help China clean up mountains of waste

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Sure, it ain’t pretty. But the technology that made this is clean, cheap and fast.
Sure, it ain’t pretty. But the technology that made this is clean, cheap and fast.
Image: WinSun

This post has been corrected.

Perhaps one of the reasons many think 3D printing is overhyped is that much of the attention has focused on printing things like human organs and guns. Meanwhile, the real innovation that will make manufacturing many orders of magnitude cheaper is a tad less sexy.

But a Chinese company has proved just how revolutionary industrial 3D printing can be. WinSun Decoration Design Engineering printed and assembled 10 one-room houses in just 24 hours, reports Computer World. Each building, which was around 650 square feet, cost only around $4,800 to make. What’s more, WinSun used recycled construction waste and cement.

Image: WinSun

Researchers at the University of Southern California have in the past demonstrated the technology for printing the shell of an entire building in a single day. And European architects have been building 3D-printed houses that are pricey, ornate design spectacles.

But by pumping out 10 drab-but-functional buildings in just a day, WinSun is the first to showcase the technology’s practical potential.

The company used four 3D printers that stand 20 feet (6.1 meters) tall, and are 33 feet wide and 132 feet long, Computer World reports. Instead of ink, the printers squeeze out the building material the way one might squeeze frosting from a pastry bag, forming walls a single layer at a time. Once at the construction site, these walls were joined together to form one-room houses.

Perhaps even more exciting, though, is the substance WinSun used to make the buildings: discarded construction materials like mine tailings and other waste.

That’s stuff that China sure creates a lot of. Chinese buildings are typically razed after only 30 years, compared with 75 years in the US and even longer in Europe, reports the New York Times (paywall). This is part of why China generates between 1.6 billion tons and 2 billion tons (1.4-1.8 billion tonnes) of construction waste from demolished buildings each year. Even scarier, it recycles very little of that. Japan, for example, salvages 95% of its construction waste; China reuses less than 5%.

So this use of 3D printing could be good for the environment—and also cheap. Developers can halve construction costs by reusing materials, says Ma Yihe, WinSun’s CEO and the printer’s inventor. Ma says he is planning build 100 recycling facilities across China to refine materials for his 3D printing projects.

Still, scale is a problem. The big limitation with 3D-printing at the moment is that you can’t make a wall that’s bigger than the printer. And of course those pre-fabricated walls have to be transported from the printer to the construction site.

WinSun points to (link in Chinese) a possible future fix: a “Minibuilder” robot pioneered by the Institute of Advanced Architecture of Catalonia in Barcelona that prints structures directly onsite. If this works, it could eventually make 3D house-printing even cheaper, slashing transportation and labor costs.

Correction (Nov. 3, 2014, 12pm EST): A previous version of this report incorrectly identified WinSun as Minibuilder’s developer; the actual inventors are a research team at the Institute of Advanced Architecture of Catalonia in Barcelona led by Petr Novikov and Sasa Jokic.