Houses from a 3D printer in UMaine Orono
Anyone who has used a home 3D printer to produce whistles, pencil holders, toys, and other household items knows the capabilities of a machine that can turn a computer file into a physical object.
But to see what 3D printing can really do, look no further than the house that Habib Joseph Dagher and his team at the University of Maine in Orono built and plan to reproduce multiple times to help address Maine’s housing crisis.
The school’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center has an entire 3D-printed house — a 600-square-foot, one-bedroom home complete with a full bathroom and a combined kitchen/living room area.
It’s been a year since the first demo model was installed on the college campus, and today Dagher, the center’s director, can confidently say that the house’s design is sturdy enough to handle a typical winter.
“The goal was to test it in a Maine environment,” he said.
Dagher and the center are so confident in this technology that they have plans to mass produce it. The center has already raised $81.5 million to begin work on a new factory next summer, located next to the center’s current building on campus. Dagher said the factory would likely allow an entire house to be produced within 48 hours.
The 3D homes are planned for a nine-lot subdivision of low-income subsidized housing in the Bangor area.
How it works
The technology of ink-on-paper printing has been around for decades. Home 3D printing works on the same principle, where the head delivers something, in this case melted plastic or resin, rather than ink, in 3D rows.
It goes without saying that the centre’s 3D printer, although based on the same concept, is more complex. The most noticeable difference is its size. The platform on which the head prints objects is large enough for an adult to stand on while still providing plenty of space. It doesn’t use plastic either. Instead, she melts a composite of wood fibers and bio-resin to make the walls of the house she prints.
The complex is also the most visible sign of the centre’s philosophy of sustainability, not just practicality. Dagher said that the wood component comes from scrap produced by the state’s wood industry, which is considered waste anyway. The center grinds the wood into a flour-like powder. Each 600 square foot home would require approximately 10 tons of lumber. With an estimated 1 million tons of scrap lumber produced in Maine each year, there is more than enough for the center to operate.
Dagher said the resin the center mixes with the wood can come from several sources, most likely from recycled waste materials such as milk cartons.
“Our mission is to bring green energy and materials to the community,” he said.
The idea is to respond to supply chain issues that deprive Maine of building materials once new materials are found for use within the state, Dagher said. This philosophy extends to other parts of the home that the center cannot print, such as windows and doors. These come from companies within the country as well, he said.
“The idea is to try to reduce what we import,” he said.
Habib Joseph Dagher, director of the University of Maine’s Center for Advanced Structures and Composites in Orono, holds a container filled with pellets made from a 50/50 mixture of wood powder and bio-resin. A massive 3D printer melts the pellets and turns them into a compound used to print the walls and roof of a one-bedroom house. (Spectrum News/Shaun Murphy)
The housing project is already underway
The center is working alongside Maine Housing, a quasi-nonprofit that serves as the Maine Housing Authority, in its first real-world test of the technology’s potential.
The plan, according to a center spokesperson, is to build homes for a subdivision in the Bangor area, targeting low-income Maine residents who are struggling to find stable housing.
“The idea of creating housing units in a fraction of the time with a fraction of the workforce is an efficiency we’ve never experienced before,” said Dan Brennan, director of the Maine Housing Center, when the center’s home was first unveiled. in November 2022. “This will significantly expand our precious state and federal resources and, most importantly, will provide them — quickly — to those in our state who need them most.”
“Factory of the future”
Dagher said the center’s expansion plans will result in the production of large quantities of homes, but the new facility will do much more than that. The center will also be a research and development laboratory, he said. Even as the factory produces homes, he said, the center will work to find ways to improve its operations, produce smaller homes faster, and eventually build larger homes.
Currently, the center employs 400 people on various projects, including 3D printing for homes, but the expanded center will need more people, with more technical skills. Dagher described the center as similar to a “teaching hospital”, where it trains new engineering students to work in the local factory, and perhaps to work in other factories of this type that could be built elsewhere in the country.
“This is the workforce of the future that we are preparing for,” he said.
While much of the construction of a 3D-printed home is done using robots piloted by artificial intelligence software, Dagher insisted that even if the technology takes off as expected, it will not replace humans, nor is it supposed to. Dagher believes that it complements the existing traditional construction industries.
“There is no single technology that can replace today’s market,” he said.
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