Alquist 3D & the State of Colorado to Build a Foundation for 3D Printed Housing: Interview with CEO Zachary Mannheimer

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No matter how much progress is made in printing with concrete, additive construction (AC) may always be the wild card of the additive manufacturing (AM) sector. So much the better: the more that companies in the AC space can retain the innovative spirit that led them down the path to begin with, the more disruption they should be able to achieve in the long run.

Zachary Mannheimer, the Founder and Chair of Alquist 3D, is the embodiment of this. Although he didn’t start the company until 2021, Mannheimer’s vision to leverage AC for disruption in the US homebuilding industry existed years before that. Now, Mannheimer has found an equally adventurous collaborator in the state of Colorado, the new headquarters for Alquist 3D.

Habitat for Humanity house completed in Virginia at the end of 2021 by Alquist 3D

Specifically, Alquist 3D now calls the city of Greeley (about an hour and a half northeast of Denver) its home base. This is thanks to a $4 million public-private partnership between the state, the city, the company, and Aims Community College. By laying down these new roots geographically, Alquist 3D is also doing the same with its business model: Mannheimer has set out on a journey to franchise Alquist 3D, in a push to make the scale-up of 3D printed housing as realizable as possible:

“Colorado and the city of Greeley have really provided the right visionary group of leaders around us. Greeley wants to solve a big problem — infrastructure for affordable housing — and they’re not afraid to go all in with an emerging technology, which is exciting. And then, to me, this is the most exciting piece of this: thanks to the partnership with Aims Community College, the workforce development that’s going to be created because of this technology. This is how we get young people back into the trades. Aims is going to teach our curriculum on their campus and we have space on their campus for production.”

The final piece that makes this venture work is Alquist 3D’s new partnership with RIC Technology, a manufacturer of robotic arm AC platforms based in Torrance, CA. The concept is for employees of Alquist 3D franchises in other states (or other nations) to come to Greeley to learn how to use the RIC platform to print homes, then return to their own stomping grounds to spread the knowledge:

“Greeley, CO is becoming the epicenter of the 3D printing construction movement in America overnight. It’s the only place on the planet that’s going to have robots being assembled, new material being created, a showroom to demonstrate what a 3D printed home or wall is, actual 3D projects happening for housing and for infrastructure, and then the training program. In my opinion, if you want to get into 3D construction in the US, you’re going to have to come through Greeley at some point. If you’re interested in joining our franchise program, you’re going to come to Greeley for a day and a half and learn about it, see a robot in action, and understand the process. And then if you’re serious, you’ll come back for two weeks and be trained, and then we’ll get you a robot, we’ll come to where you are, and we’ll start working with you on the ground — then you take it from there.”

The RIC Technology platform

As seamless as all this sounds when you’re not the one doing it, AC is, unsurprisingly, filled with trial and error. One thing that I think sets Mannheimer apart is he’s unafraid to talk about how much progress still needs to be made with AC before it can truly make an impact. Aesthetics are still an issue, something that Mannheimer’s perfectionism recently led him to deal with on a previously completed project by starting over from scratch. But the other aspect, what Mannheimer is trying to address with the franchise mode, is far more pressing. Simply, there aren’t enough companies in the space, and until there are, the business model won’t be optimized:

“This is not a scenario where you can buy a printer or get it out of the box and then boom, you have a home,” Mannheimer explained. “The industry is not there yet. One day, yes. On top of that, it’s taken us almost three years now to perfect this model… The good news is, we’ve only been 3D printing homes in America for five years, and we’re basically on par with stick-built costs. But if we want to commercialize the industry—most people are not as gung-ho as I am and it would have had to take almost six years and several million dollars to get where Alquist 3D is today—they will need to invest a much smaller amount of money and much less time. We want to create more companies; we want to be collaborative; and we want to commercialize the industry, which is what will be good for everybody involved. The only way to do that is to train people, and that’s why we have three partners right now so far that we work with, one in Florida, one in Texas, and one up in Canada. We have a pipeline of more groups that want to work with us. We’re just waiting to be all set up in Colorado.”

Beyond the innovative business model, one of the most unique aspects of Mannheimer’s vision is that he places such a strong emphasis on the need for AC in rural areas, specifically. I first heard the CEO mention this early in 2022 when I participated in a virtual event for 3D printed housing, and it has stuck with me since. The idea that a technology for reducing the need for labor power in the most sparsely populated areas that are farthest from the central supply nodes for construction materials just makes sense to me.

“I’m from rural America, so I’ve always cared deeply about it,” Mannheimer explained. “Then, also, in my opinion the workforce of tomorrow is going to come from rural America, not the big cities. And that’s largely due to all the migration patterns that are taking place right now, patterns which were already happening before COVID, but which the pandemic sped up by ten, maybe even twenty years. We’re obviously seeing that you can work from anywhere as long as you have a good broadband signal and an available home to live in, so people are relocating in every direction.”

Along these lines, the same factors that are likely to make AC and rural America compatible with one another would also make it a necessity for far more support in the form of public spending to be directed toward companies in the AC space. Mannheimer didn’t hesitate when I asked him if the federal government is spending enough on the technology:

“Not even close. But you know, they have to spread the money around, and it’s also very early on in the process. We’re very thankful for the incentives that Colorado and Greeley were able to come up with. Again, they’ve both been very innovative and forward thinking, which is very different from most communities around the country. But of course the more resources we have, the faster we can make this grow, and I do believe that will start happening. Every other week we’re in a meeting with officials at [the US Department of Housing and Urban Development] and [US Department of Agriculture], not to mention the military, which already has many applications going with 3D construction. I think in the next couple of years, you’re going to see a greater concentration of public dollars going towards this area of innovation. As an emerging industry we just need to be printing more homes and infrastructure, and training people and getting the word out there.”

Greater public funding will also be called for owing to the technology’s potential for environmental resilience and disaster relief: “The thing that everyone always overlooks is that now that natural disasters are hitting at any time and with great frequency is that we’re going to be spending the next 50 years rebuilding community after community that gets devastated by some major storm. And 3D printed homes don’t burn, and they’re not going to get knocked down in a major wind event.”

With all that in mind, I asked Mannheimer if the US needed something like an Operation Warp Speed for 3D printed houses:

“I mean, I would love it! At the same time, I don’t think that’s necessary for the movement to succeed. I think the industry is already organically taking shape, although we do need public agencies to step up and provide more dollars on both the R&D side and for housing. So, yes, if there was an Operation Warp Speed that would inspire thousands of people to get into this and so forth, it would be very beneficial. Do I think it’s going to happen? Unlikely. I do think we could see something similar happen at a city and state and municipality level.”

According to Mannheimer, since the problems are far larger than what can be solved by any single technology, AC is not “a silver bullet”. Instead, it is only one component in the toolkit that must be developed to solve what might be the US’s greatest single social challenge:

“We don’t value housing as a basic human need in the US,” Mannheimer assessed. “Other westernized countries do. Americans know it’s a basic human need, but we don’t put that value on it. I love capitalism, I think it’s a great system — to a point. And that point is housing, and medical services—those types of things. They can’t simply be left to the market because they’re basic human needs. In many parts of Europe, they value housing the same way they value food quality and education. They’re all part of the same principle that they’re things everyone needs in order to thrive. America doesn’t see housing or shelter as part of that, which is why we have a massive housing issue, which is why we spend billions of dollars trying to solve the problem and barely make a dent. If I was going to do an Operation Warp Speed, for instance, it wouldn’t be about 3D printed houses, it would be about housing in general, and 3D printed houses would be one aspect of that.”

Essentially, this is what will always set AC apart from the rest of the AM sector: it’s almost certainly the market segment with the most potential in the long run to directly benefit human lives. As the technology continues its rapid evolution, I think that fact will become harder and harder for people to overlook.

Images courtesy of Alquist 3D

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