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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Contour Crafting: The House Printer

Iqbal Al-Sanea |
October 28, 2014 | 3:45 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

A smaller scale of the Contour Crafter at the University of Southern California. (Photo courtesy of Xiao Yuan/USC)
A smaller scale of the Contour Crafter at the University of Southern California. (Photo courtesy of Xiao Yuan/USC)
A printer is now capable of printing full-scale houses in just a day. It's a process called Contour Crafting.

“Contour Crafting is basically scaling up 3D printing to the scale of buildings. What we are hoping to generate is an entire neighborhood at a fraction of the cost, at a fraction of the time, far more safely, with ultimate architectural flexibility and highest precision,”Dr.Behrokh Khoshnevis, Director of Manufacturing Engineering Graduate Program at the University of Southern California, said.

Khoshnevis with a team of research assistants at the University of Southern California are currently researching and testing Contour Crafting, also known as Additive Manufacturing (3D Printing). The robotic machine will be capable of constructing single-story houses. Khoshnevis addresses and explains the advantages of Contour Crafting on TEDx.'

READ MORE: Architecture Legend Zaha Hadid Discusses Her Neofuturistic Work

Architects and engineers program a design, send it to the machine, and it will start to "print." Instead of printing powder or filament like an ordinary 3D printer, a Contour Crafting robot will squeeze cement, sand, or sulfur from a nozzle layer by layer, allowing a shape to fabricate. The nozzle completes a circuit, building a wall every two minutes and 14 seconds. After, a trowel evenly flattens the material. With efficient, low-cost, and eco-friendly construction technology, hazardous incidents and emission are expected to decrease. Khoshnevis predicts that the advanced technology will eventually replace human labor in construction. The team anticipates that an average, custom design house (2500 square-foot) can be built in about 20-24 hours. Manual construction takes about six to nine months. Post-traumatic earthquake and hurricane disasters can instantly be recovered, allowing quick relief.

“A lot of things you see are designed on a computer, without any human interference. So we want to scale up these processes and bring them to the realm of construction,” Khoshnevis said.

Although research is still ongoing, plans for launching this idea into space is already in session. Funded by the National Science Foundation, Contour Crafting is expected to land on Mars and the Moon in 2030. Referred to as the Lunar Construction Project, affordable landing pads, roads, and support walls will be built using natural existing materials like sulfur.

“Our Contour Crafting is trying to build the very basic construction before the astronauts arrive. We also have to build a shell to protect the aircrafts,” said Yuan. 

Not only will robots build houses and aircraft shelters in a short period of time, but also will have the ability to shape geometric walls, which are considered the strongest and most supportive material. All buildings can be shaped uniquely as long as the computer program is changed and sent to the robotic machine. While the concrete walls are being crafted, automatic reinforcement, plumbing, and electricity will be installed. However, the impressive robot cannot complete finishing touches, such as doors and windows.

Manual construction typically produces three to seven tons of waste. With Contour Crafting, there will be very little or no waste due to its accurate programming. It will also reduce health and labor injuries. According to the National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, a preliminary total of 4,405 fatal injuries were recorded in the United States in 2013. With Contour Crafting, construction workers will not be required to do tedious labor, creating a safer environment. In conclusion, there is less of everything harmful. Less exposure to harmful substances, less noise, and less energy use, less material transportaion, and less material use.

Apart from efficiency, how exactly does Contour Crafting reduce emission and waste? Xiao Yuan, research assistant, puts it in simpler terms.

Xiao Yuan, research assistant, at a Ronald Tutor Center, University of Southern California, lab. (Iqbal Al-Sanea/Neon Tommy)
Xiao Yuan, research assistant, at a Ronald Tutor Center, University of Southern California, lab. (Iqbal Al-Sanea/Neon Tommy)
“You want to make a metal cup. I give you a block of metal, you get rid of the metal you don’t need, and you make the metal cup. With additive manufacturing, we just combine the material you need by building the cup, layer by layer.” 

Research and testing the principles of Contour Crafting are currently being applied on a smaller scaled robot at a warehouse in Health Sciences Campus (Keck School of Medicine). The full scale is a massive 2.6 meters extruder robot. Official testing and construction, rather than small lab samples, will take place in locations with natural material like Hawaii, where sulfur can be found in volcanoes. Due to private research in collaboration with NASA and patent issues, visits are not permitted. 

Joan Horvath, Deezmaker 3D printing advisor and author of “Mastering 3D Printing,” believes 3D printing is heading in different directions, but most importantly, allows users to be innovative cheaply, yet efficiently. However, she does not expect Contour Crafting to replace manual labor. Horvath explains how a simple on-the-market 3D printer works. Contour Crafting produces final commodity, as opposed to such plastic prototypes.

Reach Staff Reporter Iqbal Al-Sanea here.



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