Photos: Maker-Bot

You may have seen it at your local Home Depot: An informational kiosk that shows real-world applications of what used to be considered a futuristic technology.

The retailer currently is marketing 3D printers from MakerBot in 12 stores across the country, mainly in California, New York City, and the Chicago area as well as on its website. Customers can see live 3D printing demonstrations, check out sample prints showcasing practical applications for 3D printing, and take home 3D printed souvenirs. The machines range from $2,900 for a fifth generation model to $1,375 for a mini desktop model.

With 3D printing front and center at the country’s second largest retailer, what does this availability mean for building pros? Is it something to be embraced or avoided? Could the technology put builders out of work with whole-house printing capabilities?

It all depends on your point of view, says building technology expert Blaine Brownell, director of the master of architecture program at the University of Minnesota. There’s no doubt that the technology is influencing residential construction in several ways, although widespread use of 3D printers to construct full-scale, complete buildings in one pass is far off into the future—at least a few decades away for full market acceptance, Brownell predicts.

“In a field like 3D printing there is a lot of pressure to be the first at something, but there’s a big difference between being the first and actually having industry penetration and widely changing how the industry works,” he says.

In the near future, there are a few ways 3D printing will revolutionize the construction industry, Brownell says, most notably as a design tool because 3D printers produce highly complex architectural models better and faster than manual techniques. This offers builders an opportunity to become more active partners in the design/build process. “I would encourage them to use 3D printed models to look at the tough spots where different interesections of a building collide, to potentially catch mistakes in advance,” he adds.

Design/build firm 180 degrees in Phoenix has been using a MakerBot printer for about a year to create realistic models of the more complex parts of its houses. “There’s only so much you can translate through drawings,” explains architectural designer Sherwood Wang. “Having something you can hold in your hand and flip around is good for us and for clients to use as a reference.” The firm uses the printers in conjunction with Autodesk’s BIM software Revit.

Brownell also expects 3D technology to have a big influence on building product manufacturing in the near future. Products such as hardware, appliances, and even bricks and panels soon could be produced via 3D printing.

“It’s already occurring in the aerospace and automotive industries,” he says. “It may not be that long before printed building modules are commercially available.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Chicago, IL.