AMS Spring 2023

Construction 3D Printing Startup ICON Lays Off 20% of Staff

Inkbit

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To kick off 2023, tech companies have been ramping up the industry-wide layoffs that were a major factor sparking recession fears in 2022. ICON, the Austin-based, moonshot additive construction (AC) startup, is just one of the most recent examples of this. Last Friday, now-former ICON employees took to LinkedIn to post about leaving the company, while inquiring about job opportunities elsewhere.

One of the individuals laid off commented on LinkedIn that ICON had let go “about 20%” of its workers. This individual had only worked for the company, which was established in 2017, for about eight months. This could suggest that ICON over-hired last year, in a push to keep its first major commercial build, Wolf Ranch in the Austin suburbs, on schedule.

Notably, the layoffs came in the same week that ICON was the center of a rather optimistic The New Yorker profile about the future of AC. Additionally, in November, 2022, ICON had made two separate announcements indicating the company’s continued progress.

Along with an update on the 100-home Wolf Ranch community, which included the detail that prospective homebuyers should be able to make reservations starting this year, ICON also received a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase III contract from NASA. The $57.2 million SBIR contract is funding an ICON project to build an AC platform that could be used on the moon.

In The New Yorker, ICON CEO Jason Ballard painted himself (as is his wont) as a visionary tortured by the evils of legacy construction. He also struck a rather defiant tone when the author of the piece, Rachel Monroe, brought up a more sober take on the technology from another AC insider, Philip Lund-Nielsen.

Lund-Nielsen is the co-founder of COBOD, a Danish company that has sold more concrete printers than the rest of the industry combined. The Dane voiced his concerns about American AC firms overhyping the tech before it’s ready for broad-sweeping scale-up, noting that when “expectations don’t meet the reality,” this can easily “blow up the potential”. According to Monroe, Ballard responded, “I haven’t even started raising expectations. They’re going to be terrified of what we’re about to do.”

That may certainly turn out to be the case, for better or worse. Laying off some specific positions could be seen as a particularly brazen move, and would seem to indicate that ICON is confident in the structural soundness of all the homes at the Wolf Ranch project. Should anything go wrong with the builds once there are real human beings living in them, the company will have left itself open to what would be easy and deserved criticism.

The takeaway here is that there will always be an inherent paradox between the missions of bold, future-oriented tech operations, and the mission of employing living workers. An engineering manager recently laid off by Google after over 16 years said that the company views staff as “100% disposable”. Personally, I assume that the most heartfelt wish of every hyper-ambitious tech CEO is to employ precisely 0 human beings, as soon as it’s technologically feasible. Along those lines, tech sector layoffs are crucial for everyone to keep a close eye on, since what happens in the sector itself is likely a leading indicator of what the sector is planning for the rest of the economy in the near future.

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