AMS Spring 2023

Fire at Icon’s House 3D Printing HQ Highlights Need for Decentralized Supply Chains

Inkbit

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Early in the morning on Black Friday, a fire started in the St. Elmo warehouse district in South, Austin, Texas. Those buildings were in a mixed-use, 200,000 square foot area of the district called The Yard, which serves as home to a wide range of different businesses: including the headquarters to additive construction (AC) startup, ICON.

Although there were no reported injuries, the Austin Fire Department (AFD) has said that at least two buildings so far are “a total loss.” AFD is still investigating the cause of the fire.

Despite the severity of the blaze, representatives from the company anticipate that the incident will have little effect on ICON’s operations, which include the building of Wolf Ranch, a planned community of 100 homes that will be completed largely with AC techniques. In a tweet referencing the fire, posted later in the day on Friday (November 25), ICON’s co-founder and CEO, Jason Ballard, wrote, “Grateful no one was hurt. Thankfully the printer fleet is out in the field doing good work and teams were at home for the holiday.”

https://twitter.com/JasonDBallard/status/1596262741450391553?cxt=HHwWgoC8hbGgiKcsAAAA

ICON’s signature technology is the Vulcan concrete printer, which is optimized for use with the company’s Lavacrete cementitious material. ICON has been one of the main beneficiaries of the growing interest in the AC market segment over the last several years, with the company most notably collaborating with the US military on multiple projects. The success of that collaboration has resulted in ICON’s attracting significant financing from investors, such as homebuilding giant Lennar, which is also an ICON partner on the Wolf Ranch development.

While the fire was no doubt tragic for the businesses involved, it is certainly fortunate that no one was injured. Moreover, for ICON, specifically, the outcome could potentially even be positive for the startup’s reputation.

As the update tweeted by ICON’s CEO reflects, the decentralized nature of distributed manufacturing (and construction) operations inherently lends itself to resilience. This is a particularly dramatic example of that, but the same thing that will allow ICON to withstand an unforeseen calamity like a fire, underscores the potential for companies to decentralize their business activities to defend against far more routine supply chain disruptions.

ICON’s build site in the suburbs of Austin, which was unaffected by the fire

Additionally, to narrow the focus down to the AC space, the incident may have added a point to the pros column for on-site deployment of concrete printers, compared to prefabrication at a central site. The profit advantage of prefabricated homes is frequently touted as one of the strongest arguments in favor of using AC to address shortages in housing markets. At least in this case, however, ICON was clearly better off not having a warehouse full of prefabricated housing components.

And, given that the technology is meant precisely to hedge against the risk of both man-made and natural disasters — like fires — this may reframe the narrative concerning the relative strengths/weaknesses of on-site construction and prefabrication. Regardless of the short-term profit motive, the trajectory of construction printing as both a technology and an industry may be best-served by making decentralization a strategic priority.

Images courtesy of ICON

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