If you are thinking of building a new home for your family, you might want to watch this TEDx talk by a USC professor who has engineered a way to build a house using additive manufacturing methods.

Wowser! I thought this technology was for smallish stuff, like electronics, bones or coffee cups.

Behrokh Khoshnevis, though, is thinking way outside the 3D printing box with his “automated construction,” which he calls Contour Crafting, and has developed the equipment and programming to “print” concrete buildings.

Khoshnevis is a professor of Industrial & Systems Engineering and Civil & Environmental Engineering, as well as director of the Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies. According to the CRAFT website, his vision is to revolutionize housing construction, and the team has set an audacious goal for itself-the ability to build a custom-designed house in a day. The new approach is expected to “drastically [reduce] the costs, injuries, waste and environmental impact associated with traditional construction techniques.”

The professor thinks the approach could be used to construct dignified, affordable housing to replace slums, as a rapid response option in disaster areas and for extraterrestial construction. (Some of his funding comes from NASA).

However, just like smaller-scale rapid prototyping manufacturing, the method offers flexibilities that are difficult to achieve with traditional stick or brick-and-block construction, for example, buildings designed with “curved organic designs.” (Which means Frank Gehry might be able to muscle in on the housing market. Sign me up!)

The video of his TEDx talk is about 12 minutes. He shows simulations of the process starting at about the 2:20 mark, and a demonstration of the system comes in at the 6:40 mark. He says the concrete they use is reinforced with composite fibers, has strengths in the 10,000 psi range (the standard for traditional construction is 3,000 psi) and that all the mechanical systems—plumbing, electric, windows, etc.—can be built in along the way.

Khoshnevis admits that rapid prototype construction may be a disruptive technology for the $1 trillion construction industry and might mean hefty job losses in the sector. He estimates that costs of financing could be reduced by 20-25 percent, materials costs could be reduced by 25-30 percent and labor costs could fall by a whopping 45-55 percent.

But he is unapologetic, citing agriculture as an example. A century ago he says 62 percent of Americans were farmers; now fewer than two percent are. We still eat; we still work. He also points out that a technology like this could open opportunities for groups of people that tend to be sidelined by the construction industry, like women and the elderly.

The Obama administration, too, hopes additive manufacturing will be disruptive in a positive way and open new opportunities in the nation’s manufacturing sector. Just yesterday, the announcement was made that an Ohio–Pennsylvania–West Virginia-based consortium will be the “pilot institute” of the National Network of Manufacturing Innovation. The NNMI is envisioned as a private-public partnership network of 15 institutes supported with $1 billion of federal investment and consortium matching funds. Five federal agencies agreed to contribute up to $45 million to the pot to fund the pilot institute—DOD, DOE, Department of Commerce, NSF and NASA.

Things moved pretty fast. The NNMI proposal was announced by the president on March 9, and the RFP for the pilot institute was announced on April 13. According to a press release from DOE yesterday, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute will receive $30 million in federal funds which the consortium will match with $40 million. The National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (Latrobe, Pa.) leads the consortium of 40 companies, nine research universities, five community colleges and 11 nonprofit organizations (listed below).

A NCDMM press release says that the bulk of the cost sharing funds are from industry and the state governments of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. It says, “This I-80/I-79 corridor with nearly 32,000 manufacturers, commonly known as the “TechBelt,” represents a smaller geographic area but larger manufacturing output with more combined average production workers per year (1.01 million) than the two largest manufacturing states (TX, CA).” (That is, the “TechBelt,” formerly known as the Rust Belt.)

The winning consortium beat a field with twelve other competitors from across the country, including some with big research universities involved, including MIT and Georgia Tech. The NAMII will be headquartered in Youngstown, Ohio, according to a newspaper report.

And now, because this is a blog, I am allowed to opine, which I shall now do.

When I first moved to Northeast Ohio over 25 years ago, Republic Steel’s mills were pushing out tons of steel. That’s gone, and I think, finally, everyone has pretty much figured out that commodity steel is mostly manufactured offshore now. (The US is still a leader when it comes to production of highly engineered steels, like high alloy stainless steels.) But, I have long argued that we need to get over the loss of steel and look at what our region’s competency is. And that is, the “Rust Belt” knows how to manufacture.

We have the infrastructure and know-how to get materials in and products out. We have lots of smaller manufacturers that know how to heat treat, form, machine, coat, assemble, etc. Let’s stop pining for what we’ve lost and watch for and adapt to new opportunities that capitalize on what we’ve been doing for the better part of a century. Industries like renewable energy and medical devices need us. Let’s make sure they know it.


Consortium participants:

Companies: Allegheny Technologies, AlphaMicron, Applied Systems and Technology Transfer, Autodesk, Boeing, Catalyst Connection, Energy Industries of Ohio, ExOne, FMW Composites, General Dynamics, General Electric, Honeywell, IBM, Johnson Controls, Kennametal, Kent Displays, Laser Technology Assts, Lockheed Martin, Lubrizol, M-7 Technologies, MicroFab Technologies, Morris, Northrop Grumman, nScrypt, OSRAM Sylvania, Optomec, Oxford Performance Materials, Paramount Industries / 3D Systems, Parker Hannifin, Plextronix, POM, RTI, Ruger, Sciaky, Stratasys, Stratonics, Timken, Touchstone Research Lab, Westinghouse Nuclear, Wohlers Associates

Research Universities: Carnegie Mellon University, Case Western Reserve University, Kent State University, Lehigh University, Penn State University, Robert Morris University, University of Akron, University of Pittsburgh, Youngstown State University

Community Colleges: Eastern Gateway Community College, Lorain County Community College, Northampton Community College, Penn College of Technology, Westmoreland County Community College

Non-Profit Organizations: Association for Manufacturing Technology, Ben Franklin Technology Partners, JumpStart Ohio, Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network, MT Connect, NorTech, National Digital Engineering and Manufacturing Consortium, Ohio Aerospace Institute, Robert C. Byrd Institute, the Youngstown Business Incubator, and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers