While 3D printing may seem relatively new to many, its conception was only eight years behind that of the inkjet printer. In 1984, Charles Hull invented stereolithography – a printing process that utilizes UV lasers to allow a 3D object to be created from digital data . The basic concept is simple: deposit material in successive layers to create a physical object based on a digital design. Designers, engineers, or architects could now rapidly prototype without the need to invest in large-scale manufacturing. In successive years, advancements in technology have allowed printers to become less expensive, more accurate, and able to print a wider variety of materials (think blood vessels!). 3D printing has exploded into all sorts of industries, from aviation and aerospace to medical and construction.
The application of 3D printing in the construction industry is particularly salient. Habitat for Humanity estimates that 1.6 billion people currently live in substandard housing, and 4 billion people will require affordable housing in the next 15 years . Nearly 100,000 housing units would need to be built daily to meet that demand.
Founded in 2012, the mission of World’s Advanced Saving Project (WASP) is to use technology for sustainable progress. WASP decided to tackle the problem of affordable housing via 3D printing technology by creating the largest 3D printer in the world with the aim of creating a ‘zero-mile’ home .
Nicknamed the Big Delta and standing at 40ft tall by 20ft wide, the printer uses, clay, mud, and plant fibers as raw materials to print structures. The choice of material was a conscious decision; not only does mud reduce the environmental footprint of the process by removing the need to source cement, it also acts as a natural insulator. The Big Delta can run on less than 100 watts of power – essentially a few solar panels . For portability, the entire printer can be disassembled and easily reassembled by three people in about an hour. In terms of efficiencies, the Big Delta can lay down between 60cm to 1m of material every day at an estimated cost of 48 euros for a whole structure .
Currently, the Big Delta is in Massa Lombarda in Italy, WASP’s home country, where it is completing its first structure. While the final houses are by no means glamorous, the low cost, portable, and sustainable aspects of the printer are huge upsides in rural areas of developing countries. Alternatively, it can also be utilized to provide temporary shelters after natural disasters.
WASP funded the Big Delta by using proceeds from sales of its commercial printers and continues to be self-financed. The company currently works on an Open Source platform and actively looks for collaborators to partner with them on new initiatives. In the long run, WASP hopes to sell printed structures to individuals and businesses to fund their plans to build 3D houses in developing nations .
While the implications of this technology are certainly exciting and can add tremendous value, there are several things that WASP can do in its operating model to ensure it delivers on its value proposition. First, the company does not seem to have partnered with any organizations that are leaders in the non-profit space or any governments on the local or federal level. These organizations would likely be very interested in this technology and could benefit greatly from its application. Additionally, these organizations would likely be able to provide in-depth knowledge on local living conditions, possible challenges, and ideas for adaptation of the structures to the climate or culture of a particular location. Second, WASP needs to continue investing in research to develop new materials or to refine the Big Delta to be able to work more quickly. The impact of the Big Delta is currently limited by its speed, and any incremental improvement will exponentially increase its value as a construction tool. Finally, while WASP is currently self-financed, it should consider the possibility of obtaining outside investment to continue to expand its reach and the scope of the project. Once the Big Delta is firmly established as a functional technology, WASP should be able to tap into financial markets to access a larger pool of capital. While it should be selective about potential investors to ensure that they are aligned with WASP’s main mission, an inflow of capital can open up new possibilities that allow the company to advance its goals more rapidly. With a little luck, in a few years’ time we may be able to see an entire village built by the Big Delta.
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