To build ten huts or to dream of a castle? China is getting 3D-(re)printed

Project by Universe Architecture, image via archello.com
Winsun's 3D-printed house. Shanghai

Winsun’s 3D-printed house being assembled. Shanghai

China began investing in 3D printing in the early 1990s and is something of a relative early adopter. And despite Terry Gou, president of Foxconn Technology Group, one of the world’s largest electronics manufacturers, having called 3D-printing “a gimmik”, Chinese materials firm Winsun New Materials this year made the news internationally by 3D-printing ten stand-alone buildings in 24 hours. They used a giant custom-built 3D printer measuring 6.6 meters tall, 10 meters wide and 32 meters long that outputs layers of construction waste mixed with cement. The houses will be used as offices at an industrial park in Shanghai. Rather than printing the homes in one go, Winsun creates building blocks by layering up the ‘ink’ in structural patterns in a central factory and rapidly assembled on site with very little labor. The only sections not produced by the printer were the roofs – the company says this won’t be possible until the technology becomes more advanced. The diagonally reinforced print pattern leaves plenty of air gaps to act as insulation and the cost of each house 200 square meters house is as little as 4.800 USD. Outside the major urban centers, there’s still a vast need for quick, cheap housing, and Winsun with these plain houses has indeed stepped forward with a very impressive demonstration of rapid construction.The company, based in Suzhou, demonstrated the technology on a report from Chinese television company CNC World. According to that report the company spent 20 millions RMB and 12 years developing its specialized additive manufacturing device. Company president Ma Yihe hopes that one day 3D printers will be used to build skyscrapers, reusing materials from unwanted buildings and without waste. You can watch the video report below:

The news sounded like a hoax to those in Europe that in the past few years engaged the run for the first 3D-printing building. In order to catch some media attention, more than one architect was quoted by saying things like “It will be the first 3D-printed building in the world!”. Now some could claim that the Chinese one doesn’t really count like a 3D-printed house, but I’d rather have ten houses built in a day from waste than a dream of a castle that delays to be realized. Flashy projects like the one featured below up until now are nothing more than mere renderings, and maybe a more down-to-earth approach could help improve the living, health, security and outlook standards of many people around China and the world. I’m stating this with all due respect to the great research work that has been done so far [see here, here and here].

Project by Universe Architecture, image via archello.com

The Landscape House by Universe Architecture, image via archello.com

3D scanning and 3D printing technology have begun to play an extremely important role in preserving historical artifacts. In China, the technology is being used for the first time to restore the 千手观音 Avalokitesvara Thousand Hand Bodhisattva statue from the Dazu Rock Carvings. Bodhisattvas are the incarnation of Buddha that have chosen to remain in the cycle of Samsara to educate others and guide them to enlightenment. This 12.5 X 7.7 meter statue is carved into a cliff during the reign of the Southern Song Dynasty from 1127–1279, and the last renovation took place under the Qing Dynasty, when the bodhisattva had a gold foil applied to its surface. In 2011 a Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage team have begun using 3D scanning and 3D printing to better repair the statue. Additionally, the team has performed X-ray scans of the sculpture to determine points of weakness. Masks are then applied to reinforce the bodhisattva’s overall structural integrity. The restoration project, dubbed ‘China’s No.1 rock heritage preservation project’ is expected to complete in 2015. This is the first of many restoration projects that the Chinese government has planned on using this technology for. There may become a time, in the not too distant future, where all the major cultural relics in the world are backed up on a hard drive via 3D scans.

观音 Avalokitesvara Thousand Hand Bodhisattva statue from the Dazu Rock Carvings. Image from washingtonpost.com

观音 Avalokitesvara Thousand Hand Bodhisattva statue from the Dazu Rock Carvings. Image from washingtonpost.com

On March 27 and April 3 doctors in Xi’an, have successfully implanted titanium prostheses made with 3D printing technology in clinical trials. Guo Zheng, an orthopedics professor at Xijing Hospital of the Fourth Military Medical University in the city, led his team to implant the 3D-printed titanium prostheses into three patients who suffered from bone tumors. The diseased parts of the three patients were the pelvis, scapula and clavicle, which all needed to be removed as the tumors were cancerous. Traditional standardized prostheses were unable to meet the requirements of different types of bone defect reconstruction and often failed because they did not match. With the prostheses made with 3D sintering the patients have recovered satisfactory physical form and function after two months of postoperative treatment.

Coming out of the Hangzhou University of Science and Technology in 2013, Regonovo is a bioprinter that is able to 3D print ears, kidneys and various other conglomerations of cells in sterile environments, in about one hour. The printer uses medical polymers, live cells, inorganic and hydrogel materials to create a scaffold from which cells are cultured to create living tissue. The only issue is that it uses an 80 micron printer nozzle, which makes the 3D printed cells about 5 times larger than normal cells, but during the printing process, about 90% of the cells are alive, and incubated cells have been able to survive for up to 4 months.

3D-printed titanium prostheses

3D-printed titanium prostheses

Within the West drivers to adoption of additive manufacturing have been largely predicted on product personalization, increased geometric freedoms and functionally and low-volume / high value manufacturing. Thus enabling the production of cost effective personalized products, manufactured closer to the point of consumption, with less raw material and lower environmental impact. In Europe and North America it’s widely believed that 3D-printing will re-shore manufacturing from low-wage economies to our own indigenous economies, generating jobs. In China, the socio-economic drivers to 3D printing technology adoption are quite the opposite. Betting on automation, China is fighting to remain a world leader in manufacturing at the large-scale industrial level, whether that manufacturing is being done by humans or by robots. It has already built the world’s largest 3D printer, a six-meter diameter beast big enough to print a car, as well as several other large scale industrial 3D printers capable of printing titanium alloy structures, including parts used in satellites, rockets, and nuclear power plants, and is on track to become the largest 3D printing economy by 2016. Western countries cannot count on the manufacturing jobs that went overseas to ever come back, just as we can never expect the subsistence agriculture jobs that were replaced by manufacturing to return. Cheaper foreign labor can be replaced by many types of automation. That will offer little comfort to Western and American workers who have been displaced by foreign manufacturing.European and American makers are now familiar with American manufacturers like Stratasys Ltd. and 3D Systems Inc., but soon we might start to be more accustomed to their Chinese counterparts like Beijing Tiertime Technology Co. Inc. and Beijing Long Yuan – Automated Fabrication System. For those interested in buying a Chinese desktop 3D-printer here is a price compare table of China-made 3D-printers