The depressing lack of affordable housing affects 300 million families, over 1 billion individuals, worldwide. These families are homeless or forced to live in extremely poor housing situations normally categorized as slums and the number of affected families is expected to grow to 400M in the next 7 years. ICON, an Austin, TX based startup led by Jason Ballard seeks to radically rethink how we can solve this problem – they seek to use 3-D printing to “print” quality houses on the spot faster and more efficiently than ever thought possible.
Using revolutionary and advanced technology, the company has recently designed a portable robot that has the ability to lay down concrete, layer by layer, gradually building up the walls and visage of a normal house. Using this additive manufacturing method, the company seeks to minimize waste as the machine lays down only the concrete necessary to complete the structure. Additionally, the concrete used in the printing process is three times stronger than standard concrete, and the entire printing process can be complete in under 48 hours. ICON’s team believes that they can get the total costs down to $4000 each, less than 2% of the cost an average house in the US and over time, they believe that the process can be shortened to 24 or fewer hours from start to finish.
Operationalizing and testing this idea required more than the simple question of how they could use 3-D printing to build a house can be printed, the whole 3-D printing concept needed to be re-imagined to fit the desired goal. Standard 3-D printing is optimized for small, compact projects but over these past years, ICON needed to not only create a 3-D printing robot large, complex, and precise enough to print out an entire structure, the very materials (primarily concrete) that the housing would be constructed out of needed to be considered and developed as well .
Recently, ICON partnered with the San Francisco based, non-profit, New Story to begin developing a neighborhood of 100 housing units in El Salvatore’s poorest regions for $1M – a price of $10k per unit . It remains to be seen whether or not ICON can get the prices down to their stated $4000/house when they begin operating at scale. If the housing solution in El Salvador proves to be successful, it opens the possibility of ICON expanding its project worldwide. ICON’s CEO, Jason Ballard hopes to bring this technology to the hundreds of millions who are living in the packed and impoverished slums around the world. Looking into the far-future, space isn’t even off the table – Ballard has mentioned that this technology could possibly be used to build habitats in space in the future.
Stepping back from these lofty future visions, ICON has its work cut out for it in how they will scale this process. One of the biggest problem that the ICON team needs to solve is the question of how they will source their construction supplies and specialized labor. Will the team be able produce the specialized printable concrete on-site with locally sourced materials and operate the printing robot with local talent? I believe that if the ICON team truly wants to make this a global solution to the housing crisis, they will need to ensure that the machine can be operated without extremely specialized training and the concrete can be mixed onsite. Many 3-D products require extensive stabilization of the material while the item/product is being build as well as extensive post-processing . Getting this expertise out to the field in these developing countries will certainly be a problem if the team is not already thinking through this problem.
ICONs stated goal is to create the “future of human shelter.” Is it really possible to solve the dense packed housing situations in countries like Bangladesh, India, Philippines, an Haiti with this type of 3D printing technology. One begins to wonder whether the company should start to think about building up rather than simple and separate one story buildings when space for housing and land prices are just as big of an issue as the affordability of the housing. In addition, one of the biggest things that traditional manufacturing has over additive manufacturing is that additive manufacturing’s forte is in its ability to be customized while traditional manufacturing’s strength is in efficiently designing the simplest solution to scale-driven processes , is ICONs solution truly the best way forward?
 King, R., et al, (2017). Towards a More Equal City: Confronting the Urban Housing Crisis in the Global South. World Resources Report. Working Paper. https://www.wri.org/publication/towards-more-equal-city-confronting-urban-housing-crisis-global-south
 ICON Website, (2018), Retrieved from: https://www.iconbuild.com/
 Olson, C. New Story Unveils First 3-D-Printed Home, Newsroom, 12 March 2018, https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/new-story-unveils-first-3-d-printed-home]
 Anderson, W. (2018). Austin startup catches SXSW’s eye with 3D-printed tiny home that costs less than a car. Austin Business Journal.
 Brown, A. Chain Reaction: Why Additive Manufacturing Is About To Transform The Supply Chain.” Mechanical Engineering, The Magazine of ASME, October 2018
 The limits of 3D printing. Harvard Business Review Digital Articles (June 23, 2015)