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Material Issue

Mobile computers and alternative energy are nifty, but to really get a sense of what the future will look like, you have to think more concretely. Some of the most interesting, worldchanging developments under way are in the realms of material science and engineering. The materials out of which the world around us will be rebuilt and the techniques by which the work will be done are both in line for some profound changes.

We've noted before some of the new developments in making building materials more environmentally sound. But how about making them more aesthetically appealing, too? A German company called LitraCon has developed a method of embedding light-transmitting glass fibers in concrete. Without reducing the structural strength or insulative capacity, the glass fibers give the concrete the ability to conduct light -- not making the concrete transparent, but translucent. Although the article at Optics.org and the LitraCon site don't discuss environmental effects, I would suspect the results to be, on balance, positive, as a greater amount of natural light transmission would lead to a somewhat reduced need for artificial (hence power-consuming) lighting.

One material science revolution which is well underway is the development of 3-D printing, often referred to as "fabbing" or "stereolithography." Most 3-D fabrication technologies focus on the smaller end of the scale, making machine components or (in the not-so-distant future) consumer products. But what if you wanted to make something big? Can you print out a house?

Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis at USC says yes. Using a process he calls "Contour Crafting," large-scale structures can be efficiently and inexpensively built layer-by-layer. The Contour Crafting page has links to a number of articles about the process, as well as some video; be sure to check out the animation of a complete homebuilding process (32MB WMV). While some of the press about the idea has emphasized the "built without human hands" element, the goal for Dr. Khoshnevis is a system which could quickly build stable, long-lasting buildings in less-than-ideal circumstances, such as in disaster areas or (a bit down the road) on Mars. Ultimately, the system should be able to construct a 2000-square-foot building in under one day.

Good articles about Contour Crafting can be found at New Scientist and The Age. The first tests of the system are scheduled for 2005.

(Thanks to both gmoke and Ming the Mechanic for heads-up on Dr. K.)


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Comments (11)


This stereolithography is so wrong on so many levels!

what is the advantage? it can't be cheaper than human labour, in R&D costs, capital costs and O&M costs! while there is unemployment in the world, why would we ever spend MORE money to put MORE people out of work? people can build houses out of adobe just fine and we can actually EMPLOY them (what a concept!) while their house is being built and give THEM the money we'd be spending bringing in this silly machine. This way, we're addressing more than one problem at once: the reason we need low-cost housing is because people can't afford better housing, often because they're unemployed. Similar arguements can be made in disaster areas: people who've lost their livelihoods and homes need new livlihoods, not just new houses built by outside high-tech workers!

This seems like a high-tech hammer looking for a nail, surely there are infinitely better uses for research money than this.

A+ for geekiness, F for realistic usefulness


Hmm, does low cost housing mean that the multi-million dollar robot used to build my house cant be bothered to make me some stairs? I suppose the poor will have time to make a ladder while they watch it go.

Thanks, nick, for your comment. Always good to kick the tires on new ideas. In this case, tho, I disagree.

Re fabbing: You're making what's commonly known as the buggy-whip-maker's argument against new technology, here. Every wave of technology displaces some jobs and creates others - how many often has more to do with policy than technology. I can easily envision ways that fabbing could create more net jobs in the developing world. The street will find its own uses for this stuff.

And given that a majority of the ecological costs of most objects in our current world are in the coordination of parts and assembly, the shipping and the storage, anything (e.g., fabbing) which shortened those supply lines could greatly reduce the environmental costs involved.

Finally, if your concern really is jobs in poor parts of the world, bad trade, lending and monetary policies are far more worthy targets for ire than an experimental technology... perspective and priorities, y'know.


Hi Alex, thanks for replying!

are you really saying that 'fabbing' is more ecologically sound than simply building stuff out of adobe by hand??? the material and energy costs of R&D, building, shipping and operating this machine FAR outstrip those of simply paying people to build their own houses (if you're in the business of spending money on housing).

I _am_ concerned about livelihoods in the developing world, and you're right to say there are other policies to criticize, but cool technology will not necessarily lead to human development or the improvement of people's lives and no amount of saying 'the street will find a use' will change that... we (being people from developed countries) cannot expect to help those less fortunate than ourselves by simply building things for them through funding our own expensive research efforts. people in developing countries need help to build their OWN technical capacity, to build their own houses and become self-reliant. Rich americans funding rich americans to find new and more expensive ways to build homes for the poor is simply not a very good way of making the poor less poor.

I am curious though, to hear some (let's say five) "easily envisioned ways that fabbing could create more net jobs in the developing world" or "street uses" for this probably-pretty-expensive technology.

finally, a note on the 'buggy-whip-maker' comment, i'm not worried about actually displacing jobs in some knee-jerk way, but more saying that it would be more beneficial all around to hire people to do the work.

interestingly, the buggy whip makers had the right idea, environmentally speaking, given that they were complaining about the appearance of automobiles, which are a huge source of pollution and GHGs as you likely well-know given that there are often posts here about alternate means of transportation :P


Leaving completely aside whether the world's poor will want to stay down on the adobe farm once they've seen the lights of TV -- a not minor point -- here's why I still don't agree:

Despite three decades of propaganda to the contrary, traditional economic practices are not *neccessarily* sustainable. Adobe collapses in earthquakes. Wood buildings deplete local forests. Poorly designed hearths kill more people than smoking. Traditional farming techniques are in many places depleting the soil at a faster and faster rate as more people need to be fed. They do "employ" more people, but when the definition of employment is an increasingly marginal existence with an eroding base of ecological support, I question its value.

If we had no cars, horses for our six billion people and the infrastructure to support them might well be a terrible source of pollution. If we had no electricity, we might still be burning coal in our stoves and all the world might look like London c. 1880.

There is no model of low-tech, small-is-beautiful future which works with 9 billion people on a much-depleted planet in 2050, given realistic expectations about human desires and behavior.

Like it or not, it's innovate or crash, I believe. And a crash is the worst of all possible scenarios for everyone involved, people and critters too.

Fabbing and jobs, one scenario: given the "Napster fabbing" effect that the widespread adoption of cheap fabrication devices (combined with the overall digitization of material goods already underway with CAD and such) could have, where a large variety of complicated tools would become only as expensive as their materials and energy costs -- both of which could be available locally, potentially -- I think fabbing could easily spur local economies. Imagine fabbers all across the south spewing out pirate solar panels...


as I understand it, this extrusion process itself uses adobe of some kind doesn't it?


I think I'm not being as clear as I could be, my apologies... I don't have a problem with stereolithgraphic manufacturing techniques in general, for eg solar cells, 3d printing is pretty damn cool.

what I find silly is (only) the idea of building structures with it, because I think we can do THAT much better (and with less energy/material extraction/pollution) by hand, both in poor and in developed countries.

Oh. In that case, I'm not sure we entirely disagree at all.

Okay, nothing to see here. Move along. ;)


ok! :)

I'm still pretty skeptical about widespread availability of this sort of process for small-scale manufacturing in 'the south' where many don't have clean water or electricity or in some places even literacy, much less telecom and computers, but as long as we're not saying this is a better way to build houses, we're roughly on the same page.


...the talk about using this for disaster housing or in LDCs is just a red-herring. It will take off first in the MDC for-profit construction market, and grow from there.

Yep. This housing robot will just get better and better, cheaper and cheaper, if computers are any sign of how things develop.

Kiss your jobs goodbye.

I'm sure all those construction programmers will uh... Go back to school for four years, and uh... Study something that uh... won't be done by robots by the end of 4 years?


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