Additive Manufacturing Technology can Help Shelter Disaster Victims

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Additive manufacturing technology could offer the quickest, most cost-effective and sustainable shelters for disaster relief
Nattle | Shutterstock.com

Advancements in Additive Manufacturing technology like 3D Printing offer a cost-effective solution not just for disaster relief, but for construction in general.

Conflicts, mass migrations, and natural disasters all create a need for temporary shelter, and often for large numbers of people.

Shortages of basic materials in refugee camps in conflict zones around the world often result in victims living for extended periods of time in unsanitary and unsound conditions.

Homelessness destroys human dignity, and precarious accommodations endanger human life.

Even in more permanent structures like homes, office buildings, and schools, structural failures or the lack of antiseismic proofing can lead to the destruction of entire towns, like in the recent earthquakes in Central Italy. Rebuilding cities using traditional construction techniques can take years, and the costs of materials and labor are expensive for governments, private companies, and affected families.

Fortunately, progress in additive manufacturing technology may offer a quick, cost-effective and sustainable way of building temporary structures for disaster victims.

An unidentified girl poses among trash and shanties in a refugee camp in Dunkerque, FR.
An unidentified girl poses among trash and shanties in a refugee camp in Dunkerque, FR. Anjo Kan | Shutterstock.com

Subtractive vs. Additive Manufacturing Technology

Conventional construction is a subtractive process. Materials are cut into pieces, machined, milled, and worked on to fit the intended design. Such a labor-intensive approach creates considerable costs in the form of waste from unused raw materials, as well as labor costs from construction crews and engineers.

3D printing, on the other hand, is an example of  Additive Manufacturing. Physical objects like shelters can be created from digital designs, which radically reduces construction time and the need for large labor crews.

The fact that each object begins as a digital design also means that every component of the shelter can be customized. This makes it possible to easily adapt shelters to specific weather and environmental conditions in order to better address victims’ needs.

Finally, 3D printing does not require the level of tooling, metal casting, injection molding, or other materials required by traditional construction– something that helps drive down construction costs.

Biodegradable “Mini” Super Structures

Another factor that helps reduce costs and encourage efficiency is that these designs can be realized using bio-plastics, or plant-based, biodegradable plastic filaments that can either be left to decompose without causing environmental harm when the shelter is no longer needed or can be recycled to create more shelters.

DUS Architects, an Amsterdam-based industry leader in sustainable 3D printed structures, recently used bioplastics to create their 8m2 micro home that could be the standard for future temporary shelters. By using patterned angular protrusions to reinforce the walls of their Urban Cabin, the studio was able to design the tiny home to both maximize limited space and provide superior stability– all using materials that cause zero environmental damage and pose no known risks to human health.

The central Italian city of Amatrice was almost completely destroyed in the recent earthquake on 24 August 2016.
The central Italian city of Amatrice was almost completely destroyed in the recent earthquake on 24 August 2016. Antonio Nardelli | Shutterstock.com

Building 10 Houses in 24 Hours

Increased availability of affordable, large-scale printers combined with customizable designs capable of being transmitted electronically make 3D printed shelters hands down the fastest way of providing temporary shelter to a large number of people.

Chinese company WinSun demonstrated this fact when it reported printing ten houses in 24 hours— all using proprietary 3D Printing technology.

For this project, WinSun employed an array of four printers, each measuring 10m wide and 6.6m high. The printers utilized multi-directional automated sprays to emit a combination of cement and construction waste used to print walls layer-by-layer.

Building on a Solid Foundation

From recent projects in AM, it’s clear that 3D printing with bioplastics would offer the fastest, most cost-effective and efficient way to not only build sturdy shelters for large numbers of people in need, but to also help rebuild lives.

While there is room for improvement in the technology and costs are still dropping, 3D printing is becoming more available outside of large-scale industrial use, and will undeniably change how we build our homes.

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