There are some naysayers who think climate change doesn’t exist. It’s a greenhouse, or should I say, outhouse myth. Don’t get me wrong. I am not one of them. To me, the evidence is unequivocal. Sea levels are rising and the world is getting warmer. Time is also running out. Some scientists believe we are close to midnight in terms of doing anything meaningful to stop climate change from destroying our world.
But this is not meant to be a discussion on climate change as worthy as that might be. What I am really wittering on about here is the remarkable something that just happened in China, indirectly related to climate change. It may change the way we live. It will certainly change the way we build.
A Chinese company has just constructed an apartment block, and what is quaintly described as a McMansion, using (wait for it) a 3D printer. Go figure. In case you are wondering, is it the same kind of ink jet print used to print copy on pieces of A4 paper? Absolutely. Obviously, we are talking about a ginormous version. The printer is 105 feet or 30 metres long, 33 feet or 10 metres wide and 21 feet or 6 metres high. In fact it resembles a giant piping bag used to decorate cakes. But instead of using ink, the giant 3D printer lays down a cement like material partly made from construction waste, like concrete dust, fiberglass strands, sand and a hardening agent to build walls and ceilings tough enough to withstand an earthquake. The company called Winsun Decoration Design Engineering, constructed a six storey apartment and a mansion, of about 11 thousand square feet or 1,100 square metres, side-by-side in an industrial park in eastern China. And how long did it take for them to do it? This part you are not going to believe. The answer is less than a week, for both buildings. The five storey apartment took one day to print and five additional days to assemble. Not only is it quick, it is environmentally friendly.
The construction method is extraordinary. 3D printing works through a process of layering. The printer reads a file, the same as a deskjet reads an image, and then translates that into a physical object the way your printer spits out ink on to a page—one strip at a time. The “ink” in this 3D printer is recyclable construction material that shoots out of a nozzle and onto a platform. It will gradually build layers with curves until it reaches the top. You could call it a bottom-up process. What is so exciting about this technology is that it’s better suited to creating or prototyping new shapes rather than reproducing existing ones. The Chinese company Winsun constructed preforms for its two buildings that are simply bolted together in much the same way as you would do if you were building a giant Leggo set. The prefabs are then reinforced with steel and filled with insulation, which is the procedure followed in every other traditional construction project. Of course this method of building has produced some remarkable statistics. The company says it cut construction costs, when compared to a standard built project, by 60 percent with 70 percent lower production time and an 80 percent lower cost. The mansion, although huge in size, cost as little as US$161,000 to build. Speed is the key feature. The company says completing the various elements of the structures takes only 30 percent of the time needed to finish a similar structure using traditional construction methods. The company wants to use 3D printers to build bridges and skyscrapers.
This is definitely a new way of building and the possibilities are endless. In fact, last year, Winsun wanted to prove a point so it constructed ten houses in less than 24 hours, each of them about 2,100 square feet, costing US$5,000 to build. Can you imagine how this would benefit low-income housing projects, disaster relief in poor countries, or refugees fleeing war? Instead of living in tents or other crude or rudimentary forms of shelter, these houses could be either temporary or permanent accommodation. These developments have caused a lot of people all over the world to suddenly get very excited. It is not hard to see why. There are key benefits, too good to pass up, for using a 3D printer as a method of construction. Ironically, as a design becomes more complex, the cost of 3D printing drops substantially when compared to traditional methods. And the reason for that is because a 3D printer can literally reinvent the wheel. It can create any prototype you want. The only limit is your imagination. Or course that has architects, all over the world, positively licking their lips. It means that architects can dream up and build all sorts of fantastic structures that are currently either too difficult or too expensive to construct using traditional methods. These kinds of buildings would also be safer for the people living in them as well as the people constructing them. Structures built with curves are inherently stronger. Pillars with greater density towards their edges are sturdier and because fewer construction workers will be needed to build these buildings there will be fewer deaths and injuries. But nothing is perfect. It also means there will be less jobs in the construction industry.
3D printers can also be used for construction of a different kind. For years, scientists were able to “print” types of human tissue using a 3D printer, but in a significant leap forward by both American and Australian researchers, scientists can now make that human tissue survive on its own.
Until now, a major barrier to medical researchers moving from printing tiny sheets of tissue, to entire 3D organs, is that they hadn’t worked out how to develop the vital blood vessels that provide the cells with nutrients and oxygen, and allow them to excrete waste. This essential process is called “vascularisation” and is necessary if researchers are to prevent cells from dying before they can grow into large, transplantable organs. But in a major joint medical breakthrough, researchers from Sydney and Harvard universities have managed to use a 3D printer to bio-print capillaries, the tiny channels that allow vascularisation to take place so that cells can sustain themselves and survive. The process is ingenious. This high-tech “bio-printer,” allows researchers to fabricate tiny, interconnected fibres that serve as the mould for artificial blood vessels. They then cover the 3D printed structure, with a cell-rich protein-based material, which is solidified by shining light on it. Finally, they remove the bio-printed fibres, leaving behind a network of tiny capillaries coated with human endothelial cells, which form stable blood capillaries and all of this happens in less than a week. Biomedical engineer and a leader of the research team, the University of Sydney’s Dr Luiz Bertassoni, said printing organs may still be a couple of decades away, but this was a “great step” towards achieving that goal. “We have shown that we can print these capillaries, we have shown they are functional, that they mature to form capillaries and that we can tailor make them to the sizes and structures we need,” he said. “Tissue engineering to make simpler tissues has been a reality for a number of years and through what we have been able to achieve, we can start talking about larger, more complex tissues that are able to survive longer.”
While the majority of the research was carried out at Harvard University, Bertassoni said a laboratory had recently been established at the University of Sydney so the work could continue in Australia. After the findings were published in the journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Bertassoni said he was contacted by patients, wanting to know if this technology means organs can now be printed? While that is still a number of years away, what the medical team had achieved was ‘game-changing.’
But it hasn’t stopped scientists from trying to make human organs using a 3D printer. Harvard researchers are trying to print functioning human kidneys, while a team at the University of Louisville in Kentucky is trying to create a 3-D-printed heart. “Thousands of people die each year due to a lack of organs for transplantation,” Bertassoni said. “Many more are subjected to the surgical removal of tissues and organs due to cancer, or they’re involved in accidents with large fractures and injuries. “While printing organs may be a couple of decades away, I also wouldn’t be surprised if I was wrong about that because this type of engineering is moving so rapidly. I would so love to be wrong.”
I think we all hope that you are Doctor Bertassoni.