Chances are you’re reading this on an object that wasn’t assembled with much human input. These days nearly everything is manufactured using automation; what still requires manual labor is made in sweatshops of one form or another. One major economic sector has so far remained outside this great industrial transition: construction, which remains a largely hand-fabrication industry. Indeed, its labor-intensive practices provided a good life to a great many people until the Great Recession, and it’s unlikely to employ that many people again for a long time.
It’s also why, says one man, structures cost four times what they ought to. That man is Dr. Berokh Khoshnevis, Professor of Industrial & Systems Engineering, Aerospace & Mechanical Engineering, and Civil & Environmental Engineering at the University of Southern California. War Is Boring recently connected with Dr. Khoshnevis via Skype.
WIB: Thank you, Doctor, for speaking with us today. What’s currently happening with the Contour Crafting system?
BK: Unfortunately, not a great deal here in the United States, I’m sorry to say. I just retuned from a trip to Finland, where there is great interest in Contour Crafting; there is also great interest in Asia and the Middle East. There are all sorts of new varieties of concrete entering use, and architects are experimenting with new sorts of structures. I think the technique will be adopted overseas before it is here.
I’m also, frankly, disappointed with the U. S. military’s response. The Office of Naval Research and the Army Corps of Engineers have contributed to our efforts, but not to the extent of fielding practical solutions. The system is capable of building blast walls autonomously, and of building proper shelters rather than mere tents. Think of the goodwill we might have garnered if we’d reconstructed Afghanistan and Iraq with dignified buildings.
WIB: That’s amazing and distressing. Hasn’t the U.S. construction sector helped at all?
BK: Some, but not a lot. Caterpillar and USG [maker of drywall] supported our work until the Great Recession, when they laid off many people. The real estate collapse dried up money and interest to a great degree. I’ve been running the program for 10 years with part-time help and about $2 million in total funding. The research isn’t easy — in addition to studying the hardware, software and system performance, you have to run a concrete crew!
WIB: How far can you take this process? I mean, your images and videos clearly show how you can build a subdivision, but what else can you do with it?
BK: Well, for NASA we built model concrete domes and fuel tanks as part of a study on lunar bases. Contour Crafting excels in forming complex curves, so domes and such are easily accomplished. This feature, by the way, lets this new process easily adapt to traditional architectures.
We can automate every aspect of building construction: plumbing, electrical, communications, and combine them into the building process. We can even “print out” the planters, seating areas and appointments of the building; after all, the tolerances, geometries and algorithms involved in construction are far less exacting than in manufacturing.
Consider that soon every engineer will have a 3D printer on his desk. We have thousands of years of experience with manual construction, but only 30 years of experience with manufacture by layers. Who knows what awaits us as this method becomes commonplace?
WIB: In both world wars, concrete ships were successfully built and used. Could the Contour Crafting process build a ship?
BK: Yes indeed; as I said, the system excels in complex curves such as you would find in a ship’s hull. And all the benefits of automated construction could be applied to shipbuilding. As a matter of fact, one of the first applications we thought of for the Contour Crafting system was the manufacture of submarine hulls.
WIB: So you could “print” ships?
BK: Yes, in the same sense that you can “print” houses.
WIB: Wow. Would those curved surfaces allow you to “print” a hardened aircraft hangar?
BK: Certainly. But you can do more. The Air Force has developed a geopolymer, a substance that when added to soil turns it into a concrete-like material. Now, it only requires a mixture of 5 percent geopolymer and 95 percent soil to create this material, and a basic Contour Crafting rig weigh only 500 pounds and can fit in a military aircraft. So rather than transport large amounts of cement, steel and other materials to a remote military outpost, they could carry only the Contour Crafting machine and a small amount of geopolymer, and quickly fabricate a secure, comfortable military fort.
WIB: That’s remarkable. Thank you again, Dr. Khoshnevis.
BK: You’re most welcome.