How About 3-D Printing Huge Objects?

A real estate blog has created an online calculator to estimate 3-D printing time for a whole house. Which begs the question: What could we do with huge, industrial-scale 3-D printing? And who’s using it?

How About 3-D Printing Huge Objects?

The moment one libertarian gun enthusiast churned out a working firearm from his 3-D printer, speculation soared with the possibility of basement arms races (not wanting to be left behind, the US Navy spitballed about turning its ten 5,000-man aircraft carriers into drone-printing factories). But with the possibility of printing out anything with the proper CAD file, domestic engineers have speculated about using a 3-D printer to pump out enough parts to build an entire house… a feat that would still take time and pricey 3-D plastic “ink” to print out parts. Luckily for domestic technodreamers, real estate blog Movoto created a house calculator to spit out estimates for how much you’ll have to fork over to print out your dream home.


We won’t sugarcoat it, folks: Using a Makerbot Replicator 2 desktop 3-D printer, a typical two-story, 2,500 sq. foot home will take 220 years to print out enough modular “bricks.” Like a laserjet, the Replicator 2 spits out layers in frenetic horizontal waves, melting bio-plastic PLA in place of ink–and printing out a home of the aforementioned size will set you back a cool $332,820.

Of course, those figures are for a printer available on Amazon for $2,200 (about two-thirds the price of the first HP Laserjet in 1984). Fanciful Euro designs aside, a Dutch firm is planning to print out a home in Amsterdam using a six-meter tall Kamermaker (“room maker”) and hopes to have the facade printed and assembled by the end of the year, with other rooms to follow. As much a production as it is a production display (the Kamermaker is open to the public) flaunting Dutch domestic production, the two-story printer dwarfs commercial models, and in the printing game, the larger the printer, the stronger the structure.

There are other ways to scale up 3-D-printing production than leapfrogging 3-D printer size: an MIT research group has proposed using swarms of tiny robots to additively produce larger structures along with strapping a printer to the bed of a truck to increase its “printing” footprint. These think-tank solutions have more application for industrial-scale fare…which is exactly where the 3-D printer market is heading.

Industrial 3-D printing is starting to overtake the DIY (that is, consumer) 3-D printer market. Wired reported last month that big-name manufacturers like Ford are already picking up steam in this area:

In response to the slowing uptake among amateurs, Wohlers says he’s seeing companies like MakerBot going upstream. “You can tell that they are trying to go beyond the market of the individual hobbyist types and get into the more professional companies,” Wohlers says. “MakerBot in particular has had some success at Ford, but all these low-cost 3-D printer makers are finding it is a little harder to get deeper into the hobbyist market and breakthrough into some of the professional markets.”

As in every industry, enterprise is where the big money is at. Wired again:

It is in the professional markets–especially at the very high-value, high-end in aerospace and medical devices–where the money is being made in 3-D printing. And for the first time in the 25 years since Wohlers has been tracking the space, that includes a big chunk of revenue from producing actual parts rather than just prototypes. Companies like G.E. Aviation are printing out fuel injectors for commercial jet engines. Medical implant company Lima Corporate printed out 40,000 porous titanium cups for hip replacements (the porosity allows the bone to grow around the metal cup). Of the $2.2 billion overall market, about 28 percent in sales were from finished parts.

While a low-end Makerbot can print a prototype or a small-scale model, the 3-D printing market is increasingly securing contracts for finished parts at a rapid rate: Wired notes that in 2012, production of finished parts made up 28 percent of the 3-D printing market–up from almost zero in 2003. So while the hobbyist market’s demand for 3-D printers may have plateaued, it’s professional industry demand for specified 3-D parts that is driving 3-D innovation into its next phase.

[Image: Flickr user Agência de Notícias do Acre]