I came home last night to find a large brown cardboard box lying in the hallway. These boxes always solicit beads of sweat from my brow. A large brown unopened box with a courier sticker typically indicates a sizable deduction from the family bank account. Anyway, to her delight, my wife informs me the box contains the latest retro mid-century-modern baby bassinet and I will be putting it together this weekend.
This piece of infant furniture (now in several pieces lying on the living room floor, along with broken polystyrene all over the carpet) reflects the ‘Amazon’ retail phenomena of the last decade. My wife found the item recommended by a friend on facebook or babycenter.com, looked up an online retailer, purchased it by credit card and a courier delivered it a few days later. No visit to the store and no bricks and mortar real estate – except a warehouse and factory somewhere I guess.
I look at this item and there are four separate pieces which I have to hex key together. They are made of plywood, but could easily be made of plastic or some other composite without affecting the look or design. I look around the rest of the living room, a number of Eames replica items including a coffee table which is essentially 3 separate pieces and a kids table and chairs all with quite basic geometry arranged to give that slimline non-decorative 1960’s form. You can get the designs on all these items off the Internet. In fact I was about to attempt my own Rietveld chair based on replica plans freely available on the Internet. I haven’t yet made the commitment to visit the home improvement store and purchase the materials but it looks easy enough.
Wouldn’t it be great (i.e. cheaper) if I could just have printed this bassinet out? The components are all fairly simple forms plus some screws – and I have to put the thing together anyway.
That gets me thinking. Is 3D printing a mega-trend that in a decades time we will not know what we did without it? Does 3D printing represent a potential paradigm shift in how we manufacture and procure products. What does 3D printing mean for real estate and construction?
There are a number of visionaries attempting to commercialize 3D printing an entire house. Their progress looks promising but there are a number of complexities (like reinforcing, plumbing, electrical wiring and waterproofing) to be overcome. However, with funding from no less than NASA (who alledegly has an interest to build homes on the moon) the University of Southern California are making big strides with their Contour Crafting Robotic Construction System.
If and when 3D printing houses is fully commercialized and cost effective the construction industry could be completely transformed.
– speed of construction reducing finance and holding costs
– much less transportation costs, lead time and delivery issues
– quicker supply to meet demand
– significant decrease in skilled labour requirements (albeit creating completely new roles )
– less joins for more effective waterproofing and accurate detailing
– an increased focus on replacement (and recycling) over repair maintenance and demo approach
– colour infused exterior facing material with inherent water resistance eliminating painting
– emerging modular systems will either embrace 3D printing or be at its mercy, as on site construction benefits potentially leap ahead of off-site prefabrication and delivery
– new composite re-usable materials (inks) with inherent sustainability, bio-ecological, acoustic, fire and water proofing characteristics – even 3D printing in steel
– the potential for craft and personalised design to merge with industrialised processes without requiring standardization and mass production to reduce costs
In the interim, there are a number of smaller 3D printing initiatives that could have a much more immediate impact. Look around your bathroom, there are a number of objects where they are simple forms. Why couldn’t they be printed onsite using by a realistic portable 3D printer?
Currently you visit the plumbing store or peruse the internet for the style you would like and then have to wait for the next shipment from China or Italy if it is not a stock standard product. The builder of the future simply downloads a pre-approved design and material ink spec into his site shed 3D printer, customizes the exact dimensions and material colour and texture and hits the green button. 3 hours later a towel rail and a toilet roll holder emerge.
Just look around your house – even just the simple forms – difficult component printing and assembly will take longer to commercialize. Imagine if you could go to a base design on the internet, customise for your (or your architect of the future) unique design tastes and have exactly what you want ready to be printed, just before installation is scheduled. Light fittings, electrical covers, hardware, vanity tops, benchtops, even the kitchen sink!
Another simple application is to print your own construction molds. Precast concrete is increasingly used in residential construction and one way to soften its appearance is to add texture. For example a residential apartment building recently completed in New Zealand uses weatherboard on the front building, because its timber construction but a weatherboard textured precast concrete on the adjoing rear building. You cannot tell the difference. The precast texture will have required a formwork mold, typically created by the time consuming task of framing one up in plywood, and limited to basic shapes. Molds that are 3D printed have practically limitless design potential. in a matter of hours you could have a custom printed mold to create very complicated textures for use on all types of concrete surfaces.
You can imagine all sorts of other benefits and effects on construction, but what about the potential fundamental shifts that will affect real estate and the logistics industry, including importing and exporting?
Rather than transporting finished components to site you are transporting raw ink (printer material composites or ingredients). That would mean significantly smaller required transportation volumes in total if you look at a whole house.
Rather than warehousing construction materials you are warehousing ‘inks’ or the component materials within. Or I guess they could be stored in big drums like oil. This may mean less demand for low impact warehouse space and more demand for heavy industrial style storage space.
Rather than going to a retailer to purchase goods, many of which are stored on site to meet lead time expectations, you are purchasing intellectual property (and emerging issues) and then printing it yourself.
What would this mean for retailers of construction products and their real estate requirements? Does it mean less and less retail and warehouse space required as 3D printing gradually replaces successively more and more complex products that retailer’s currently supply?
Is the home improvement store with its shelves of ‘standardised’ generic products gradually replaced by 3D printing machines in everyone’s home?
How does this affect current business models of Internet retailers who generally make their money off sourcing, storing and sending you physical products? What about their warehouse demand?
What happens to courier companies who in recent years have been boosted by online retailing? – I guess to counter this courier demand could increase if neighborhood design-printing facility businesses as opposed to in-home printing offer a more convenient service.
How does this affect the massive production of construction materials in China, that still incur transportation costs to their end installation site?
If you can pay for a design off the internet, download it into your 3D printer and ‘bake’ your product at home, how does this affect importers and exporters ? (and brown cardboard box makers!)
What happens to the work subcontractors are involved in maintenance if construction is much more reliant on product replacement, and that product replacement comes from 3D printers owned by the client? Think of government housing associations for example whom have hundreds of thousands of items to repair/replace each year.
Do developers of the future need to design to a 4 bed, 2 bath, 2 car garage, plus 3D printing room specification?
Yes there is still a long way to go, a significant amount of hassle factor and as yet dubious cost efficiency but the technology is moving fast. The desktop 3D printer market is established and growing exponentially and you can already print architectural quality products in high detail.
Eventually 3D printing could substantially change the construction and real estate industries and much of the logistics they operate with. The applications of 3D printing appear limitless and the barriers are quickly being broken down. The MIT Mediated Matter research group are doing some amazing research in this area.
My best guess is that 3D printing will involve in ways few can think of at the moment, it will make some categories of business and their real estate needs redundant but also open up new opportunities.
Back to my bassinet, while I am printing that out in my 3rd bedroom/office/3D printer room, I might as well print a couple of stools for the bar and redo all the kitchen joinery door handles.