Does additive manufacturing have the potential to resolve the affordable housing epidemic in our country? Dr. Berok Khoshnevis from the University of Southern California and founder of Contour Crafting (“Contour”) certainly believes so. He is currently working on completing a robot that uses additive manufacturing to create structures with applications ranging from housing construction to space colonialization. Additive manufacturing, commonly referred to as 3-D printing, is the process of creating 3-D items using digital code and this advance in manufacturing is emerging as a megatrend affecting industries from fashion to medicine. However, instead of printing plastic objects, Contour plans to print buildings with a computer-controlled robot that creates hollow walls and then fills them with concrete until the structure on the code is complete. Critics argue that 3-D printing will only serve a niche market within the construction industry allowing for new architectural experimentation, but Contour believes differently as it seeks to harness the technology to drive social change.[i]
Contour Crafting is focused on using 3-D printing to transform the construction industry by reducing costs, saving time and increasing accessibility. Some of the key cost components of a development project include raw materials, financing expenses and labor costs, and Contour’s 3-D printing approach proclaims to be more cost efficient compared to traditional construction by achieving cost savings in each category. The 3-D printing approach eliminates waste of raw materials because each raw material is close to 100% utilization due to the precision from the computer enabled machine. By comparison, traditional construction creates over $30 billion in wasted raw materials annually since resources are not utilized as efficiently.[ii] 3-D printing can also shorten the project length from months to one day and thus reduces the required financing costs needed to fund the project as well as the opportunity cost of pursuing the project. Finally, 3-D printing reduces the amount of physical labor needed to complete a project and instead requires more “intellectual” labor to supervise the machine and construction progress. As a result of these cost savings, Contour believes it can construct a house for $50 per square foot compared to $150 per square foot for traditional construction in a fraction of the time.[iii]
Contour believes this potential breakthrough technology could impact the industry not only by reducing costs and project durations, but also by altering consumer behavior and transforming the industry into a do-it-yourself (DIY) consumer market for development. In theory, this technology could radically improve the accessibility of home development by allowing people to rent the equipment in order to print their own homes in a day. In addition, the technology could be applied to address the affordable housing epidemic in our country where millions of low-income citizens are spending 70% or more of their income on shelter and new housing construction caters to more affluent citizens.[v] Contour’s technology could also print homes quickly as part of natural disaster recovery plans following earthquakes, wildfires or hurricanes and the US Department of Defense recently awarded Contour with a Rapid Innovation Fund contract to fund research supporting these technology applications.[vi]
In the short term, the company needs to focus on R&D and the development of a working prototype that can demonstrate the building process, all of the proclaimed efficiencies and ultimately complete a home that people would be willing to inhabit. In the medium term, Contour will need to identify its main target market since the target customer will influence the product development iterations. For example, Contour could develop the printers and license them to housing developers, market them directly to consumers and establish a DIY market or it could print houses itself and collaborate with the government to provide housing in areas most in need. Each strategy would impact the development of the product because each potential user could have varying needs from the level of customization of the project to the scale of the potential construction project. In addition, there would be different regulatory hurdles associated with each path since the construction industry is burdened with regulation from zoning requirements to permits. Finally, Contour needs to emphasize quality control when designing these homes if its long-term goal is to provide a solution for unaffordable housing. Without top quality, there will be a distrust of this product and it would be difficult to garner support of these printed homes from the government and the public as a viable solution to unaffordable housing.
Some additional questions to consider include:
Can construction ever truly become a consumer DIY market? How should Contour Crafting think about employment in the construction industry and the negative consequences of job displacement from this new technology? Who should be part of the decision-making process if this technology is used to solve affordable housing shortages and what is the best approach for designing that process?
(Word Count: 798)
[i] Mims, C. (2018, Apr 01). 3-D printed buildings are a tech twist on ancient construction techniques; 3-D printed buildings are finally happening, in concrete jail cells, foam homeless shelters and earthquake-proof bungalows.Wall Street Journal (Online) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/2020273112?accountid=11311
[ii] Tim Blackwell, “The Future of 3D Printing in Apartment Construction,” propertymanagementinsider.com, January 30, 2017, https://www.propertymanagementinsider.com/the-future-of-3d-printing-in-apartment-construction, accessed November 2018
[iii] Fox Business News, “Money and Contour Crafting,” YouTube, published Feb 3, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FE2ajNXL7Yw&feature=youtu.be, accessed November 2018.
[iv] Contour Crafting, “Animation of Contour Crafting In Whole House Construction,” YouTube, published November 23, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_LLSsNnHn8#action=share, accessed November 2018.
[v] Glenn Trush, “As Affordable Housing Crisis Grows, HUD Sits on the Sidelines,” New York Times, July 27, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/27/us/politics/hud-affordable-housing-crisis.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FAffordable%20Housing&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=14&pgtype=collection, accessed November 2018.
[vi] Contour Crafting, “Awards,” http://contourcrafting.com/rapid-response-construction-award/, accessed November 2018.