back to article US Army to build largest 3D-printed structures in the Americas

The US Department of Defense is to construct and try out the largest 3D-printed buildings in the Americas: three barracks in a Lone Star army base. Scheduled to be built at Fort Bliss, El Paso, Texas, over the next 10 months, the three 3D-printed concrete barracks will each be more than 5,700 square feet (529.55 square meters …

  1. Ghostman

    Finally- a solution for the homeless

    The 3-D printed concrete housing could be a boon for cities that have a homeless population. Build a central structure with a kitchen and laundry, barracks in clusters of four each, and a shower/toilet facility in the center of each group connected by covered walkways.

    Some could be further divided to hold family units for those with small children.

    Could also be a way to house those displaced by natural disasters.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Finally- a solution for the homeless

      The walls are just the walls, not the floor, not the roof, nor the rest of everything a building or home needs to function. The walls are done in days, then all the other work needs doing yet to make it livable. And the walls actually become an impediment to finishing out the building.

      Concrete walls and thatched roofs seem unsatisfactory to me.

      Note also these are all single-story buildings. In what city is that a solution?

      1. Ghostman

        Re: Finally- a solution for the homeless

        If you need multi-story, just put in the parameters of an outside staircase. Use preformed, pre-stressed concrete slabs for floors using epoxy to help fill in the small gaps/level the floors. Then move the printer to the next floor.

        Finishing would really not be a problem since there wouldn't be a need for any water supply except for a sink. Power lines wold have to come through a drilled hole, or a previously placed piece of pvc conduit.

        Flooring would be industrial carpeting or "grass mat" style covering.

        Remember that these would not be used for permanent housing, but a place for the homeless to have an address to use when applying for jobs, relief benefits, and as an anchor place until they can find housing.

        Then again, if there is sufficient open land around the city, why make it multi-story?

        1. DrXym Silver badge

          Re: Finally- a solution for the homeless

          Building codes don't go away just because people are homeless. And sticking them on the outskirts of a city might make the problem go away but it hardly encourages people to make use of the facility.

      2. Version 1.0 Silver badge
        Joke

        Re: Finally- a solution for the homeless

        "In what city is that a solution" I don't think this is how Catalhoyuk was built 10,000 years ago but it does sound like we could easily return to those days of easily building a few hundred houses, and then a few years later (when they collapse) building another couple of hundred on top of the old ones. Of course there will not be bulls heads mounted in the walls, just TV's these days. 10,000 years ago it fixed the "homeless" problems for the hunter/gatherers.

    2. Zanzibar Rastapopulous

      Re: Finally- a solution for the homeless

      The price and availability of housing is more about land than building things.

      What cities like London really need is lots of the old low rise in the centre to be demolished for skyrise high density housing.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Finally- a solution for the homeless

        The problem with cities like London is the separation of housing from work places end hence commuting. What they need is it to replace some of the existing office space into homes so that there is a balance between the remaining office space and homes for the people who need to work in them. The functions of the replaced office space can then be moved out to where the former commuters live, either as working at home or by provision of local office space.

        1. Zanzibar Rastapopulous

          Re: Finally- a solution for the homeless

          > "The problem with cities like London is the separation of housing from work places end hence commuting."

          Well yes, hence you need more housing where the jobs are.

      2. Zack Mollusc

        Re: Finally- a solution for the homeless

        What is needed is fewer humans. Demolish the low-rise buildings to build high density housing and in a few years you will need to demolish the high density housing to build ultra density housing and then a few years later demolish the ultra density housing to build infinity-plus density housing.

        1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

          Re: Finally- a solution for the homeless

          Gonna volunteer yourself for this "solution"...? Or is it another one other those "too many others except me" things?

          I'm gonna say absolute bollocks to this idea. What is needed is to rethink cities for 21st century working, living, argiculture, transport and leisure, instead of continuing with legacy cityscapes that no longer function effectively.

          1. Zack Mollusc

            Re: Finally- a solution for the homeless

            I couldn't volunteer to kill a load of people, that would be unethical. Much better to create people at a lower rate so the total population shrinks over time.

    3. DrXym Silver badge

      Re: Finally- a solution for the homeless

      Not really. There are numerous speedy ways to erect structures with modern materials - prefabricated wood / concrete, blocks, timber, concrete formwork. If it were some basic design you could probably have it poured or assembled on site quite easily. There are even companies like Huf Haus where they can literally put up a prefab house in a few days.

      Secondly sticking up the walls is only part of construction. The fit out (i.e. insulation, plumbing, electricity, windows, doors, plastering, roof, paint, floors, fixtures etc.) can take 10x as long as the shell of the building. There is also laying the foundation which has to be done regardless of the form of construction.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Finally- a solution for the homeless

      Although it's a nice idea, you can't solve the problem of homelessness by 3D printing everyone a free home.

  2. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    I wonder if it would be simpler

    To use the printer to produce metre-wide lego-style blocks?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I wonder if it would be simpler

      Many, many years ago the BBC TV "Tomorrow's World" programme showed the construction of a bungalow in a matter of hours - using Lego-style large plastic bricks.

      1. DJO Silver badge

        Re: I wonder if it would be simpler

        I remember that (or one like it), the expanded polystyrene blocks were hollow so once built Lego style and doors and window voids were blocked up, concrete was poured in the top giving a strong insulated structure.

        It too needed floors, roof, plasterboard on the inside and facing of some kind on the outside but it still should be far faster to erect than a conventional building.

        I suspect the problem was the way polystyrene behaves in a fire but the basic idea was sound, surprised it's never been commercialised.

        1. Insert sadsack pun here Silver badge

          Re: I wonder if it would be simpler

          They were commercialised - they're called insulated concrete forms: https://newhousebuilder.com/insulated-concrete-forms/

    2. Ghostman

      Re: I wonder if it would be simpler

      That would be a good way to recycle waste plastic. I've made the suggestion to use waste plastic to make similar blocks for use in road building where a road has to cross a marsh or narrow body of water.

    3. david 12 Silver badge

      Re: I wonder if it would be simpler

      It's logistics. The whole point is to build without having any trades or special materials. This isn't about building a better building, or even a cheaper building: it's about building with generic material and generic labour, so that you don't have to store or transport particular items. Just like the whole of NATO uses one rifle bullet, so you never have the wrong bullet.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: I wonder if it would be simpler

        Yeah, but a 46' wide, 15' tall printing robot sounds big and expensive.

        I wonder how much it would take to build a robot to place and mortar in bricks and/or breeze blocks (Cinder blocks) with pipes for the mortar, conveyors for the blocks? Is 3D printing actually better? Or has no one actually tried an alternative robot working with existing "traditional" building materials?

        3D printing as a solution is starting to seem a little like blockchain. It's a solution for some problems, but not a silver bullet.

        1. Death Boffin
          Boffin

          Re: I wonder if it would be simpler

          You have to realize that bricks and breeze blocks were built around human capabilities. Is this the best way to introduce automated assembly? Only time and experience will tell

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
            Happy

            Re: I wonder if it would be simpler

            Yes. Because anything other than "human standard" materials will be unique to the robot supplier and be patented. The robot builder will be cheap, but the new patented modular Brickoids, which will only stick to the patented CemGlue, will be expensive and from a single source, possibly as expensive as printer ink.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: I wonder if it would be simpler

          I think there are two key drivers here:

          (1) cost and time of labour. Once this robot has been set up, you can just leave it to get on with it, day and night. All you have to do is to make sure supplies and power are available.

          (2) flexibility. You can lob anything at this robot and even late minute changes can be incorporated, yet whatever you build attains repeatability - whatever works you can do again and again, no training of labour needed.

          All of this points also suggests a later third driver (as it's military):

          (3) portability. From a supply chain perspective (the thing the Russians thankfully got so badly wrong in Ukraine) you simplify the transport for construction. Ship a robot and the supplies (or obtain them locally) and you are in essence shipping flexible barracks (and possible protective walls - there's no reason why you can't have this thing print surrounding walls as well). That said, there's also prefab, but I think this approach may prove more flexible. Prefab still needs manufacturing somewhere, whereas 3D print basically needs, well, sludge :).

          You still need windows, doors and roofing which are as yet not a 3D pritable thing (unless you build roofs in the form of igloo/arch type closing constructs), but I can see the value of simplification.

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: I wonder if it would be simpler

            Most or your points would just as easily apply to a robot using bricks and mortar. The *proprietary* "sludge" is just as heavy as the bricks and mortar in terms of transport and still needs people to there to feed it to the robot. Likewise, the robot can work 24/7 with just a small barely trained crew to feed the bricks and mortar into the hoppers and the robot can build to plan and repeat easily. It's a robot :-)

            I'm not necessarily disagreeing with you, just wondering out loud if anyone has actually tried robot building the way I suggest. I'm guessing not, since "designing and building a robot to replace human brickies" is not going to get the investment that "WOW! WE CAN 3D PRINT A BUILDING!!!"

            On the other hand, looking at local tradition building projects, once planning has been approved, it seems to take forever to prepare the land, utilities and foundations, then the brickies come in and the houses go up so quickly it's almost undeliverable. Then it seem to take ages for the fit out and finishing, plastering, wiring, windows and doors, roofs etc before the residents move in.

            1. DJO Silver badge

              Re: I wonder if it would be simpler

              The problem with a robot to build using bricks is that it would still need something resembling the 3D printer to apply the mortar between the bricks.

              So why have 2 robots (or one very complex one) when a simple one will do?

              Oh, you'd need another robot to chop bricks into non-standard sizes or you'd need a selection of part brick sizes to be able to build anything useful.

              The "proprietary sludge" will almost certainly be shipped dry and water can normally be sourced locally so the shipping weight would probably be lower that of pre-made bricks or blocks

              1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

                Re: I wonder if it would be simpler

                Oh, you'd need another robot to chop bricks into non-standard sizes or you'd need a selection of part brick sizes to be able to build anything useful.

                One standard size suffices, just use bricks that are twice as long as wide and make any wall two bricks wide. Layer the bricks with overlap, at corners, windows and doors you can lay some bricks across.

                1. DJO Silver badge

                  Re: I wonder if it would be simpler

                  I challenge you to find a single brick built building anywhere in the world which was built entirely with whole bricks.

                  Partial bricks are not just for door or window voids, consider the roof, unless it's completely flat the walls will need a slope to support it, try doing that with whole bricks.

              2. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: I wonder if it would be simpler

                water can normally be sourced locally

                Surely that's by now also available in powder form? Just add .. umm..

                :)

                1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

                  Re: I wonder if it would be simpler

                  Wouldn't dehydrated water be...erm...oxygen?

                  I suppose you could go the other way and ship tanks of hydrogen and burn it to produce water. That ought to save weight :-)

                  1. DJO Silver badge

                    Re: I wonder if it would be simpler

                    Oh, clever. A fully integrated system of all the robotics and sludge mixing kit powered by a hydrogen fuelled generator with a condenser on the exhaust to provide water for the sludge.

                    1. Anonymous Coward
                      Anonymous Coward

                      Re: I wonder if it would be simpler

                      It also incorporates green transport - just run it on hydrogen and keep hold of the exhaust vapour.

                      See? Just come to the forums here - we'll solve your problems.

                      Or we'll have at least a good laugh about it :)

                    2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
                      Thumb Up

                      Re: I wonder if it would be simpler

                      "Oh, clever."

                      I wish! I'd not quite thought that far through it. You can have the credit for the brilliant addendum :-)

            2. jmch Silver badge

              Re: I wonder if it would be simpler

              For something semi-temporary you don't need utility connections, you just dig a septic tank hole, rig up a generator, and sit a water tank on the roof (which can be supplied by truck if no pipes are available.

              For a single story (relatively light) building, you don't need to dig deep foundations, nor underground parking. The use-case isn't replacing the way we build 'proper' buildings, it's exactly for crappy buildings that squaddies (and, I guess, possibly homeless people) have to put up with. By definition they will be built in wide open available spaces, not in cities

        3. imanidiot Silver badge

          Re: I wonder if it would be simpler

          Those exist/are in development:

          https://youtu.be/2-VR4IcDhX0

          https://youtu.be/EGBRA24qlEg

          Currently human brickies are about equally expensive but way more flexible. The big advantage of robots is that while they are slower per working hour, they're faster over longer time scales (since they can work non-stop, without break for days on end as long as supplies are replenished which is not a fulltime job).

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: I wonder if it would be simpler

            Thanks for that. The Hadrian[1] is the sort of thing I was envisioning. The other one seems more like just a repurposed existing robot arm and very limited.

            [1] hah!, nice name!, I live near Hadrians Wall, I can Segedunum from my window :-)

            I wonder how many people will "get" the name of the robot system.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I wonder if it would be simpler

      No, it would be simpler to just pour concrete into a bunch of lego-style moulds. Anyway, we've mastered the art of mass producing bricks for centuries so I really don't think 3D printing is relevant for this kind of construction.

  3. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

    The most troublesome part of the printing process is the doors...

    Watch out for the jambs.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not yet a home

    Read a gushing article about a "luxury home" built by these people near me. Plenty of pictures, so I was finally able to answer the question *always* important - where are the power plugs, how many of them per room. The plugs are in the floor, and few. The power is also available in the ceiling for the lights. But nothing pierces those walls, and even the wall hangers are few.

    And that luxury home had *so* much wood in the ceiling and everywhere else that wasn't the 'crete walls. The article mentioned the months after the walls were emplaced that it took to actually make it a livable building. The walls went up fast, then all the other magic had to be done. The complete build was not fast.

    The only interest this has for me is the possibility of replicating the experience of a hotel near Le Mont-Saint-Michel, where the 1.5 foot thick stone walls meant the first clue we had of a raging street festival / market day outside below us was on opening the window!

    1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge

      Re: Not yet a home

      Huf-Haus...

      The old fashioned pre-fab way...

      https://www.huf-haus.com/en-uk/

      1. imanidiot Silver badge

        Re: Not yet a home

        Too bad they're all so feggin' ugly. (Just not my taste in architectural style)

  5. cjcox

    Blast from my past (old technology)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJyAilELhkE

  6. An_Old_Dog Bronze badge

    Earthquake-resistance? Tornado resistance?

    It's a neat technology, but how resistant to lateral forces (due to earthquakes and tornadoes) do the walls have? They don't have the steel reinforcing bars which standard poured-cement walls have in them.

    Texas frequently is hit by tornadoes.

    1. Death Boffin
      Thumb Up

      Re: Earthquake-resistance? Tornado resistance?

      Texas is 800 miles wide. This part of Texas doesn't get tornadoes. Earthquakes are also pretty rare. This is just an interesting test of the technology. They will need to be able to print around rebar at some point.

      1. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

        Re: They will need to be able to print around rebar at some point.

        The videos I've seen of this fascinating process show that lintels are no problem. Change the programming to skip an open window, revert to print again after wood is added as a temporary lintel to support the first layers above it. Presumably this technique can also be used to add [horizontal] rebar between layers, so long as the layers are added in the same pouring session. Vertical reinforcement is the problem, unless possible to add at the cladding stage. I see that long walls have periodic kinks included within their structure to support concrete expansion and contraction.

        I feel the biggest threat for earthquakes is if the reference point for the whole structure moves, or the trammel lines of the concrete pouring mechanism become offset, even slightly, if an earthquake were to hit during the actual printing process. This would cause an offset of successive layers, leading to a binary tower of Pisa effect. I believe this problem can manifest itself if there are big swings in temperature during the printing process.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: They will need to be able to print around rebar at some point.

          ISTR an SF short story where some clever architect built a new house designed to be a 3D representation of a 4D cube. There was an earthquake and the house folded in on itself and disappeared into another dimension :-)

          1. Sean o' bhaile na gleann

            Re: They will need to be able to print around rebar at some point.

            I'm fairly certain that was "And He Built a Crooked House", Robert Heinlein, 1941

            1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

              Re: They will need to be able to print around rebar at some point.

              Very likely. I recognise the title :-)

        2. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

          Re: Vertical reinforcement is the problem

          Fibre-reinforced concrete is a thing. Steel or glass fibres, usually. Perhaps also carbon fibres. Not sure what effect steel fibres would have on the "print" head, but I'd imagine it has to be fairly resilient not to be damaged by the concreate aggregates.

          Unsure how steel-fibre reinforced concrete performs compared to rebar-reinforced, but it could be a viable replacement in some cases.

    2. Old Used Programmer Silver badge

      Re: Earthquake-resistance? Tornado resistance?

      That's what ran through my mind. But, then, I live where there are earthquakes so thinking about lateral resistance comes easy.

      1. quxinot

        Re: Earthquake-resistance? Tornado resistance?

        In fairness, a tornado hit of any significant power is going to flatten pretty much any structure you can name, excluding those built actually underground. And even if you build so robustly that it survives, the rest of town is devastated and you likely have no infrastructure functioning anymore (sewer, water, electric, internet, etc).

        Tornados are fortunately very small and quite rare on any given spot. Building for hurricanes would be possibly useful though (albeit, obviously on the coast).

        Interesting to see 3D printing being used for this, even if it's in infant stages. I'd say that the end game is not to build housing or other structures on Earth though--I have to think that the primary goal is figuring out how to repeat the process on the moon, or Mars, or some other similar place where moving building materials is prohibitively expensive.

  7. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    between 2,000 and 3,500 PSI

    " between 2,000 and 3,500 PSI"

    Is that a range of values they can build to depending on the concrete mix or is the material that variable?

  8. Dinanziame Silver badge
    Trollface

    Looking forward to construction being halted because the printer is out of magenta

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Just wait 'til HP Inc get their hands on this.

      1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge

        Proprietary Ink

        "The barracks are being made out of Lavacrete, ICON's own proprietary building material blend."

        The flow and setting characteristics of the mixture would no doubt have to be matched closely to the process, but I guess any cement manufacturer wanting to enter the market would have an uphill struggle to get their cement mixture validated on these machines, not least sorting out liability in the case of a disaster - ICON's lawyers' default position would probably be "you did not use the specified building material - we are therefore not liable" for any defects during the "printing" process

  9. ShadowSystems Silver badge

    Labour saving?

    There's no shortage of potential labour, it's the *ARMY* FFS. There are thousands of soldiers that can be ordered to complete a task & will have it done as fast as Humanly possible. No union organizers trying to throw a spanner in the works, no H&S Jobsworth whinging that the concrete needs replacing because it's half-a-shade off from spec, no striking workforce, no extra long fag breaks, it's a captive, regimented, orderly, focused like a laser, group of people that will absolutely get the job done.

    And that's just regular Army, not even the _Army_Core_Of_Engineers_ that !LIKE! to do such tasks & have metric fucktonnes of heavy construction equipment with which to do it.

    You want to try the tech, fine, but don't site a ficticious *labour savings* as the reason why. You're a fekkin' ant's nest of drones that can be put to work to Get Shit Done Right The Fuck Now.

    I'm an *AirForce* MilBrat and even *I* know that much about the grunty ground pounders, jarheads, & leathernecks. Give them credit where it's due & don't insult their (admittedly limited) intelligence by saying you need to save labour.

    *Notices the approaching angry mob of ground pounders, laughs, waves, & runs like hell*

    1. AVR

      Re: Labour saving?

      Isn't the US military into outsourcing everything that can possibly be outsourced? More recently than your MilBrat experience perhaps, I dunno.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Labour saving?

      Probably not labour saving, more a saving on training. You want these people basically for fighting, not for becoming brick layers. This thing creates repeatable structures of a certain standard without the need to train more than a few people on how to set it up and even that can be simplified.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Labour saving?

        On the other hand, most of military life is either sitting around doing nothing or training. Having skills useful in civvy life when they leave, even the "cannon fodder", would be useful. The majority of any military force are "grunts" who's training makes them good at security and...erm...maybe other stuff like "private armies" labelled as security.

    3. An_Old_Dog Bronze badge

      Scalability of labour

      There's a limit, which varies from project to project, at which adding more workers, even well-trained workers, just slows things down, because people are bumping into each other, or waiting for each other to get out of the way, or communicating, MIS-communicating, clarifying miscommunications, redoing work which was done wrong due to miscommunications, etc.

      Even when the task is a simple, manual one such as, "Dig an eight-foot deep, 80' x 40' basement here. Shovels are on that truck."

  10. TeeCee Gold badge
    Meh

    Pre-fab construction.

    Now with the pre-fab bits MADE PRINTED ON SITE!!!11!!!

    Er....woohoo...

    1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
      Alert

      Re: Pre-fab construction.

      They'll try to sell 3D Printers to the peoples of the the Arctic, to build Igloos.

  11. Claverhouse Silver badge
    Happy

    Selling Shovels versus Mining for Gold

    ICON has build several 3D printed homes, and has made deals with space exploration companies to develop 3D-printing technologies for building structures on the Moon and Mars.

    .

    Well at least space exploration is paying off for someone.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    3D printing in the Army?

    Don’t tell the kitchens.

    They’ll start banging out 3D printed food.

  13. Mog_X

    Can it use STL files?

    .If so it would be cool to print a Benchy.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    PC Load Letter

  15. M.V. Lipvig Bronze badge

    I like it! Eventually, 3-d printed quarters for frontline troops that go up almost as fast as a tent and are artillary/small-arms proof. Just what troops in semi-permanent forward bases will need.

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