In today's Finshots we talk about 3D printing and the affordable housing project

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The Story

You wouldn’t equate India Post Office with anything revolutionary, no?

Well, you soon might have to. You see, the staid and boring entity that delivers snail mail across the country is setting up a 3D-printed post office in Bengaluru. And the best part? It’s expected to take just a month to complete and cost only ₹25 lakhs. If they’d gone down the traditional route, it seems the project would have cost them 4 times as much.

But this got us thinking — “If 3D printing is so cost-effective, why don’t we just use it to solve the affordable housing problem?”

After all, 40% of the world’s population will need affordable homes by 2030. And we’d need to build 96,000 homes every day to house these people. It’s certainly a tall order. So why not use 3D printers instead to expedite matters?

Well, the answer is a little more complicated than a simple yes or no.

But before we get to that, let’s look at how 3D-printed houses work in the first place.

First, you get your desired design ready using special software. Then you connect it to a huge 3D printer — a 15-foot high machine. Then, a special concrete mix is fed into the printer. Typically, this mixture is much thicker than regular concrete. It sets better and faster. Now say, you want to build a rectangular room — the machine can pipe concrete in a rectangular motion, line after line to build a room. If you want a curved room, that’s straightforward too. Think of it like piping icing on a cake.

It’s quite obvious that this process saves time. And you don’t need as many hands on deck either.

There’s also another big advantage — sustainability.

See, the construction industry creates almost 30% of the world’s overall waste. It includes things like packaging materials, excess cement, wood, bricks, and other materials left behind. With a 3D-printed house, builders only need to print exactly what they need. And you could minimize waste this way.

For instance, in Malawi, 3D printing reduced construction waste by almost 10 times and even cut down CO2 emissions by up to 70%.

So, if it’s faster, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly, what’s stopping the world from embracing this to deal with the affordable housing crisis?

Well, the first problem is scale. Although 3D printing has been around for a couple of decades, it hasn’t set the stage on fire. Take for instance the US. There are probably around 10 companies seriously dabbling with 3D printing. In India, the numbers look even worse. Also, companies looking to enter the industry have to make a massive one-time investment and unless they get mass construction orders for 3D-printed houses, it isn’t a viable enterprise.

Then there is the issue with 3D printing itself. While many companies have been able to leverage massive 3D printers to build one-off structures, they haven’t been able to consistently print functional buildings so far. As one article notes — “Conventional buildings are not made by extrusion or casting or any other single manufacturing process; they are accretions of dozens of different techniques from cast-and-pour concrete to spot-welded steel extrusions to laminated glass. How could one process replace the dozens of others that we currently use? Yes, that is part of 3D printing’s promise — that it’s versatile enough to do the work of multiple machines — but current printed buildings are either minimally functional, if gorgeous, pavilions or houses that are basically dumb printed boxes with traditional bric-a-brac tacked on.”

The third issue is incentives. The government has rightfully recognised that 3D printing could be used for very specific use cases. Perhaps even the “affordable housing project.” But unless they can incentivize manufacturers to make massive investments, things aren’t exactly going to pan out the way you expect them to.

And finally, affordable housing needs more than just cost-effective building methods. You need affordable land. And since land is in short supply, you can only make this work if you start printing multi-storeyed homes. However, 3D printing machines haven’t yet been deployed to build such homes.

So yeah, there’s a long way to go before we can all start 3D printing homes. But hopefully, we find a solution for affordable housing one way or another.

Until then…

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