3D printing and the future of disaster relief

3D printers can cheaply construct homes and could soon be deployed to help victims of catastrophe rebuild their lives.

A 3D-printed house in Shanghai, China's Zhangjiang High-Tech Zone [Getty Images]

Architects in Amsterdam are building a 3D-printed house – an effort some say could soon tranform disaster reconstruction and help the homeless around the world as the technology becomes increasingly more affordable. 

The idea behind the project, according to the architects, was to develop ways to build homes in a faster and more efficient way, while making use of newly developed substances derived from bio-based raw materials.

“We are currently printing with bio plastics, which are 80 percent made from vegetable oil,” Tosja Backer, expo-manager at the 3D Canal House, told Al Jazeera. “We are also researching the possibilities of printing with recycled materials, plastics of course, but we are looking into using wood pallets and natural stone waste as well.” 

Hedwig Heinsman of DUS architects said 3D home building is a waste-free, eco-friendly way to design and construct the cities of the future. “The 3D printed Canal House has to become the prototype for a new way of building, which can be applied everywhere in the world,” she said.

Because of the potentially high speed of construction and ease of deployment, 3D printing could become a preferred method of responding to emergency shelter in disaster situations.

by - Behrokh Khoshnevis, University of Southern California

Digital production techniques such as 3D printing, which directly translates a digital file into a physical product, are becoming increasingly popular on small and larger scales. Some observers say the technology is likely to revolutionise the construction industry, as there are almost no transport costs since designs can simply be transferred digitally and printed locally.

Building revolution

Others involved with 3D printing suggest this building revolution could also help the world’s most vulnerable. Slums are home to more than 800 million people worldwide, and by 2050 one-in-three people will live in a slum because of the fast tempo of urbanisation, the UN estimates. 

Affordable 3D printing in architecture might hold part of the solution for social change in slums and disaster areas, said Behrokh Khoshnevis, professor of Industrial & Systems Engineering at the University of Southern California. He noted the cost savings compared to panelised construction and pre-manufactured houses that have on-site assembly and transportation issues.

“Because of the potentially high speed of construction and ease of deployment, 3D printing could become a preferred method of responding to emergency shelter in disaster situations,” Khoshnevis told Al Jazeera.

Hans Vermeulen from DUS architects said the time has come to start deploying 3D printers to construction sites around the globe. 

“We think 3D printers should be used all around the world. They have the ability to print solutions that respond to local contexts with local materials. It is time we take production out of the factory and into the city again,” said Vermeulen.

The 3D printing industry has been growing rapidly but it is still a niche market. Khoshnevis said he believes a real breakthrough will happen in three to seven years.

Global efforts under way

Chinese company Shanghai WinSun proved to have the ability to mass produce cheap houses earlier this year. It managed to print 10 200-square-metre homes in 24 hours, each costing less than $5,000. The company said the process would be perfect for producing homes for the impoverished and displaced, a key issue in some Chinese cities. 

In comparison to the 3D house in Amsterdam, the Chinese homes were not built on site. The printed pieces made from recycled construction materials and industrial waste were put together in Shanghai’s Qingpu district.

WinSun CEO Ma YiHe told the website 3drs.org the company plans to build 100 factories in China to “collect and transform” construction waste into aggregate for its machines. He estimated 3D printing will save 50 percent on traditional construction costs.

The technology is already helping out in many developing countries. There have been experiments with 3D printing in the medical field in Haiti, which is still recovering from the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people.

The country is still struggling with a lack of materials, specifically medical supplies. Companies are experimenting with printing simple medical devices, such as umbilical cord clamps. These would be 3D printed for use in local clinics with on-demand local manufacturing, thereby bypassing inefficient and corrupt import systems that increase costs and delay delivery.

Wherever there is internet access, complex 3D models can be sent in seconds to other countries for production and distribution.

Assisting relief efforts

This is following the same trajectory as computers and cell phones; as the price comes down, the usability will continue to go up.

by - Eric James, Field Ready

A company called Field Ready focuses on the provision of humanitarian relief using a variety of technologies. It says 3D printers can provide direct assistance with a wide array of items needed in a disaster situation. 

“We have carried out one domestic project thus far and will be in Haiti starting next month working with health clinics to meet a variety of needs,” Eric James from Field Ready told Al Jazeera. “We are also working on starting projects in at least two other countries by the end of the year.” 

James said Field Ready aims to provide assistance directly, as well as supporting the work of other humanitarian organisations in disaster-stricken areas.

“As an exponential technology, 3D printing is not just about what can be done today, but how it becomes more useful in the coming years. This is following the same trajectory as computers and cell phones; as the price comes down, the usability will continue to go up,” he said.

Like any new technology, it remains to be seen how feasible and cost-effective it is to ship 3D printers to a disaster-hit area.

The builder has to pay for the machine and that is only justified if they build a sufficient number of buildings to recover the machine’s investment cost. Also, a more educated workforce may be needed to operate the new machines,” Khoshnevis said.

Another challenge with 3D printing is electricity supply. But this problem is being addressed with more advanced 3D printers already running on solar power, which is necessary in areas where power lines have been severed.

Current projects are looking at the best way to tackle these challenges, and observers say in a few years the technology will be more mature and sustainable, allowing disaster relief to be delivered in a way that saves money, time, and lives.  

Source: Al Jazeera