The plan to print actual houses shows off the best and worst of 3D printing

By James Robinson , written on June 25, 2014

From The News Desk

Qingdao Unique Products’ new 3D printer it unveiled at the World 3D Printing Technology Industry Conference last week prints with plain old fused deposition modeling, just like your average consumer MakerBot.

But it is also 12 meters cubed in size. A veritable giant. And is being used to 3D print a seven meter tall model of Beijing’s iconic Temple of Heaven. It will use 20 tons of material and have 100 square meters of floor space. By a factor of three, it will be the world’s largest 3D printed building, over and above Amsterdam’s Canal House.

Reportedly, this machine was a ridiculously labor intensive exercise to build -- much more effort than, say, just building up a seven meter high temple yourself, old school style. Qingdao Unique Products spent six months building this giant monstrosity. It weighs 120 tons and was put together with a series of cranes.

No cost for the project was released. Despite the wow factor of such a project, it nods to some of the friction facing 3-D printing. On the surface, it’s like spending $101 to make $100. And it’s far from an easy or particularly practical technology on this scale -- The temple will take six-to-eight months to build.

But the project shows off some of the leaps starting to happen in the material science of 3D printing and demonstrates how with better material to construct with, the scope of what we can do with 3D printing will start to widen greatly. Qingdao’s printer will use plastic reinforced with graphene glass fiber. It is talked up as light and strong, it doesn’t corrode, and it is easy on the environment.  The company says that it thinks this material makes its effort three times stronger structurally than the Amsterdam building whose record it is displacing.

The Qingdao printer comes across as both ridiculous and brilliant for the 3D printing ecosystem. Wrapped up in the plan there’s the usual struggle of big ideas -- the company wants the printer to be used eventually to help to rebuild disaster zones -- hitting up against practical realities. The only benefit in 3D printing a house when it takes six months is being able to say that you 3D printed a house.

But the project is admirable for its big ideas, and the way it has been put on display. It’s placed in a local industrial park and will be open to the public to come and watch. 3D printing is extremely hyped, while no one outside of tech insiders and makers really knows how it works.

Such a big, public display could be the sort of tipping point for the imagination that spurs greater innovation. In that sense, more people could stand to follow Qingdao's lead.