Is the world of construction witnessing a groundbreaking transformation with the advent of 3D printing technology? Jason Ballard, CEO of ICON, a Texas-based company, believes it is. He recently sat down with 60 Minutes to showcase the industrial 3D printing technology being pioneered by his startup and the partnership ICON is undertaking with NASA.
ICON has developed a 3D printing technique that relies on concrete as its primary building material. A half-ton sack of concrete powder is mixed with water and other additives before it is ready for use in the printer. The process involves printing concrete in layer beads, which harden by the time the next layer is added. Steel reinforcements are incorporated every tenth layer to shore up the building’s overall structural integrity. The 160-bead home frames can be printed in about two weeks. Wiring, plumbing and roofing all must be integrated in the traditional way.
Ballard considers this approach a “paradigm shift” in home construction, comparing it to the Wright Brothers’ pioneering work in aviation. ICON claims that its homes – of which it is constructing around a hundred just north of Austin, Texas – are designed to be resilient in the face of the environmental challenges facing humankind. The startup boasts that its homes are not only more energy-efficient, exceeding local building codes, but they can also withstand extreme weather conditions, such as 200 mph winds. Additionally, 3D printed concrete homes are impervious to termites and other pests, making them an ideal choice for building in distressed areas.
Furthermore, ICON believes that these homes are more environmentally friendly because, compared to traditional stick frame wall systems, the concrete printed wall has a “single material supply chain” that is delivered by a robot. Because of this there are not truckloads of waste in the form of wood scrap, siding and drywall to be disposed of.
ICON’s commitment to sustainability is reflected in its partnership with an organization dedicated to housing the long-term homeless. ICON has already printed homes and a community center for a village, providing much-needed shelter to those in need. On the flip side of the coin, the homes that it is constructing north of Austin will be priced in the high $400,000s.
Ballard was open when asked about who the exact consumers for these homes are: “There’s a trick here, because what the heart wants to do is serve the very poor…I would resign if I could only build luxury homes. But we would go bankrupt if all we built was 3% margin homes for the homeless.”
An influx of government contracts – designing barracks for the army and Air Force, as well as vehicle plating for the marines – along with high-end designer homes has financially enabled ICON’s mission of ensuring its technology can benefit more than just the wealthy.
After showcasing a model home at SXSW 2018, ICON came into contact with representatives from NASA’s Moon-to-Mars Planetary Autonomous Construction Technology (MMPACT) group. MMPACT’s reps were impressed enough with what they saw to partner with ICON, first with some development money in 2020 and then a $57 million contract in 2022. They are currently working on an ambitious project to design a 3D printer that can operate on the lunar surface.
NASA is partnering with ICON to bring this technology to the moon through the Artemis program. Ballard, who once aspired to be an astronaut, now sees his work being used to construct vital infrastructure in space. The goal is to utilize lunar regolith (moon dust) as a building material, reducing the exorbitant cost of transporting materials from Earth.
“To have a truly sustainable presence on the lunar surface, you have to be as Earth-independent as possible,” said a NASA rep. The agency has been interested in 3D printing for more than 20 years and the technology has finally caught up to its goals.
The fundamental issue of space exploration, much less construction, is the cost of getting Earth-based material into space. A brick-sized amount of concrete, for example, costs about $1 million to get into space. To deal with the material needs, ICON has designed a printer that will utilize lunar regolith rather than water and concrete. Instead of a traditional nozzle, this printer relies on a high intensity laser that will melt the regolith and transform it into solid building material. ICON demonstrated this to 60 Minutes utilizing a prototype laser on simulated regolith.
NASA has been experimenting on the test pieces printed by ICON to see if they can withstand the temperatures that a lunar landing pad would be subjected to. The results have been promising enough that next step is to construct a larger test pad to place inside of a NASA’s thermal vacuum chamber that mimics the conditions on the Moon
Ballard hopes that, eventually, mobile versions of ICON’s printers will be sent to the Moon for the construction of roads and habitats. “If we can do it on the Moon, we can do it on Mars.” ICON and NASA believe that conditions on Mars might make the process easier than the lunar surface, since the red planet lacks the extreme temperature shifts of the Moon.
Lesley Stahl wondered if Ballard wasn’t falling into the same trap that had snared CEOs like Elon Musk and Elizabeth Holmes: overpromising on what can truly be accomplished with the technology they’re pioneering. A fair question to ask in light of the company’s recent round of layoffs.
“Part of the job is to get your investors and the world to believe what you’re saying. But the things you’re saying don’t exist yet. Even in this interview, I haven’t yet told you all things I believe we’re going to do.”
Ballard envisions a future where AI designs buildings, and robots construct them. This, he believes, will lead to more abundant, affordable, and beautiful housing. Some might see the comparisons to Musk and Holmes as incredibly apt, while others might appreciate a bit of utopian idealism injected into the public consciousness.
While these concepts are still in their infancy, ICON’s work and its commitment to sustainability indicate a potentially bright future for 3D printed construction. As the boundaries of 3D printing technology shift, we may indeed see the transformation of terrestrial home construction, but also our capability to sustain installations beyond our atmosphere.
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