USC professor develops 3-D construction device

A professor of industrial and systems engineering at USC has finished developing a three-dimensional “printing” device that creates buildings, which is now being incorporated into research and lectures at USC.

Building blocks · A 3-D printer, named as a top 25 invention by the National Inventors Hall of Fame, was developed by a USC professor. - Photo courtesy of Berok Khoshnevis

Berok Khoshnevis began work on his Contour Crafting device in 2000 after recognizing fabrication technology’s ability to create buildings. In 2006, it was named one of the top 25 inventions by the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Khoshnevis said he believes this new technology that is working toward building full-scale structures is the future of home creation.

Khoshnevis compared his work in the engineering of architecture to “the Wright Brothers’ 12-second flight for aviation.” He described his work as just the beginning of a much longer process that will eventually lead to an entirely new industry.

Contour Crafting creates structures solely by a computerized process. In the process — called “robotically guided extrusion” — the 3-D printing device expels a concrete-like substance out of a nozzle and forms structures by building up, layer by layer. The nozzle moves in space to create the patterns, dictated by a computer.

Much different than a traditional paper printer, the device stands 13 feet high, 17 feet wide and 25 feet long.

This is only a prototype, Khoshnevis said, and the actual device will be much larger. Currently, the device primarily builds models of homes.

Steven Nutt, professor of material sciences and mechanical engineering at USC, worked alongside Khoshnevis on developing the material used for the buildings.

“[It was] challenging to develop a material that will flow and also rapidly harden sufficiently to carry weight of subsequent layers without slumping,” Nutt said.

The problems of clogs in the nozzle also arose, which complicated development process. It took 10 years and 15 patents to create the material and extrusion process used today.

Now, the project is at the forefront of fabrication technology in architecture, he said.

“It is significant and important if he succeeds because automation has not been incorporated into construction … virtually everything else [today] is highly automated,” Nutt said.

Contour Crafting has been used at USC in many ways. Students have access to a professor who is “an expert in rapid prototyping techniques … developing a new approach to construction,” Nutt said. Khoshnevis incorporates the technology into his classes both by teaching the concept and by using it as an example.

For USC students, the technology opens up a multitude of possibilities for careers and research, Khoshnevis said. In addition to architectural and engineering careers, Contour Crafting creates careers in fields such as labor relations studies, economics, real estate, policy planning and urban development. Research can be based in the above fields or in materials, software, robotics or architectural design.

“I think it will totally change the construction process … there’s a certain [design] freedom in [expediting the building process],” said Brittany Moffett, a freshman majoring in civil engineering in building sciences.

In the future, the project could solve many of problems found in construction, Khoshnevis said.

“It only uses 25 percent of the energy and eliminates 70 percent of the waste [compared to traditional building methods],” Khoshnevis said.

The project could eliminate many construction-related deaths and injuries by eliminating man-powered construction sites.

It could also speed up the construction process and bring down costs significantly. Khoshnevis said that a building could be built mere days with Contour Crafting, and “the cost of construction will be cut down to one-fourth or one-third of what it is [now].”

He hopes the technology will be used to solve many of the world’s problems, such as speeding up disaster recovery efforts, bringing affordable housing to third world countries or even building in outer space.

“[This is] just the beginning of the process, so I shouldn’t set an end date … it will continue as long as this approach is used,” he said.