UPDATED 8/15/13: Added video playlist to bottom of article
During BUILDER’s Housing Leadership Summit recently, MIT research scientist Andrew McAfee insisted that the future of home building lies in technology that will include smart machines that can perform construction functions.
Many in the audience probably were thinking, “Here we go again about our imminent demise.” But McAfee simply was lending his voice to the ongoing debate about the rise of machines and its consequences for society.
Technology’s unstoppable march forward is taken for granted even by skeptics who don’t foresee a positive outcome. In his 1984 defense of Luddites, author Thomas Pynchon cautioned, “If our world survives, the next great challenge to watch out for will come—you heard it here first—when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology, and robotics all converge. Oboy.”
Another critic, Jaron Lanier, a Microsoft researcher and author of Who Owns the Future, in June wrote, “More and more activities will be operated by software. Instead of Teamsters, there will be robotic trucks. Where there had once been miners, there will be mining robots. Instead of factories, there will be 3D printers in every home.”
Robots on Jobsites? Behrokh Khoshnevis, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California, is betting on home building becoming part of that continuum. Since 2002, Khoshnevis has been perfecting “Contour Crafting,” a fabrication process that operates on the principles of 3D printing.
Software able to read blueprints guides a large mechanical arm suspended from a mobile scaffold. The arm extrudes liquefied concrete in patterns that form exterior and interior walls into any shape and height. Plumbing, electrical, flooring, and other finish work can be installed or applied mechanically during this process, which operates nonstop until the structure is completed.
Details like cutting window and door openings still are being refined. Khoshnevis has been soliciting investment capital for a startup company to sell the technology. He sees Contour Crafting as being suited for constructing affordable housing in areas where supply is short or where houses have been destroyed by natural disasters. He predicts the technology would reduce jobsite injuries, leave a smaller carbon footprint, and be cost-competitive with stick-built or modular construction after equipment and cycle times are amortized.
His invention might have residual benefits, too. Khoshnevis is working with NASA on a robotic system that could build structures on the moon and Mars using indigenous raw materials such as volcanic sand, which is common on the moon. That’s gotten the state of Hawaii—where volcanic sand abounds—interested in the process for producing cement.
A Youtube video playlist on the process:
How many years away do you think this technology is to being on jobsites?