Caterpillar, the world’s largest manufacturer of construction equipment, is starting to support research on the “Contour Crafting” automated construction system that its creator believes will one day be able to build full-scale houses in hours. This is concrete-jet instead of inkjet printing technology.
Contour Crafting is an effort to scale up rapid prototyping/manufacturing (a billion dollar industry to make 3 dimensional parts) and inkjet printing techniques to the scale of building multi-story buildings and vehicles. The process could accelerate the trillion dollar (US only) construction industry by 200 times. Projections indicate costs will be around one fifth as much as conventional construction. (Land prices are unchanged, so the actual prices of homes would not change as much in say Hawaii, Tokyo, Manhattan or San Francisco). Using this process, a single house or a colony of houses, each with possibly a different design, may be automatically constructed in a single run, embedded in each house all the conduits for electrical, plumbing and air-conditioning.
The machine will cost between $500K to $700K for average size (2000 sq ft — 200 m2) detached houses. This is not much given that a concrete pump truck is now $300k-$400K. Note that with one machine numerous homes can be built. The first commercial machines to be available this year, 2008. [If this date is met it will be very short run production. It seems that this is still a couple of years from any serious level of trial usage. It will take longer for wide scale adoption and build up of factories.] The machine will be collapsible to form into an easy truck load. The unloading and setup will take between 1-2 hours.
Goals for this phase of the project are process and material engineering research to relate various process parameters and material characteristics to the performance of the specimens to be produced. Various experimental and analytical methods will be employed in the course of the research.
Future phases of the project are expected to include geometric design issues, research in deployable robotics and material delivery methods, automated plumbing and electrical network installation, and automated inspection and quality control.