UMaine researchers deploy a new tool to build affordable housing: a giant 3D printer

ORONO — Scientists at the University of Maine think they have a revolutionary solution to the lack of affordable housing: tiny houses made with wood fiber using a giant 3D printer.

Home to the world’s largest polymer 3D printer, the university’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center is developing robotics and artificial intelligence technology to automate construction, which they say will be faster and cheaper than traditional construction in stick.

The center, which received $30 million in federal funding and $15 million in state funding, works around material and labor shortages in the construction industry. Researchers are using Maine wood residue – which could be wood scraps, sawdust, construction debris – in the 3D printing process, avoiding the cost increase of traditional building materials caused by supply chain disruptions. The center’s founding executive director, Habib Dagher, calls it “solving a problem using a Maine solution.”

“We are looking for a radical solution, a different solution, which will not happen overnight,” Dagher said. “We are not looking for a quick fix, because there is none.”

The center’s “factory of the future” will almost look like a next-generation car production line, Dagher said. The houses will be built in sections, or modules, and eventually delivered to sites for assembly.

“The printer does part of the project, while the other robots work with the printer to make everything work together,” he said. “The sensors will respond to the printer, and then the printer will have the ability to automatically correct with AI.”

The project coincides with a severe shortage of affordable housing in Maine, fueled in part by rising labor and supply costs.

A report released last month by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies said the typical home is unaffordable for median-income residents in the state’s four largest metropolitan areas. In the Portland area, the median household income is less than $62,000, but the income needed to buy an average home is $130,000, according to the study.

Working with MaineHousing, the center is currently building a prototype – a single housing unit, which it hopes will be ready for outdoor testing by the end of the year, Dagher said. Eventually, he said, it may be possible to “print” a 600 square foot house in as little as three days, including walls, roof and floors. The technology could also be used one day to create apartment buildings, the researchers said.

Dagher said the goal is for the lifespan of the houses to match or exceed that of conventional housing.

MaineHousing development manager Mark Wiesendanger said so far it appears to be weather and insect resistant.

“The fact that it is made from natural materials is good not only for the environment, but also for the living environment of the people who will be living in these properties,” Wiesendanger said. “Has no outgassing of plastics, for example.”

Habib Dagher holds wood pellets used in the 3D printing process at the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Unlike most 3D printing construction projects, which use concrete, the UMaine center project will use a new 3D printing material containing Maine wood fibers which are abundant, especially due to the closure of paper mills. . Center researchers are developing the material in partnership with researchers at Oak Ridge National Labs, a Tennessee lab sponsored by the US Department of Energy. By developing the new building material, they reduce construction costs by essentially adding value to low-grade wood scraps that are cheaper than lumber.

Woody materials are processed into wood flour – fine, powdery sawdust – which is bound by biopolymers, which could be made from corn. The mixture is formed into pellets, which are then melted and extruded by the 3D printer at a controlled temperature. Evan Gilman, chief operations engineer at CCSA, said it was “like a hot glue gun”, blasting the material into the desired shape.

Changing the formulation of the material can change its strength, Dagher said. They are developing “cellulose nanofibers” – with particles a thousand times smaller than wood flour – which could have properties similar to metals.

Habib Dagher shows a biopolymer and wood flour used to bind the wood during the 3D printing process. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Representative Victoria Morales said the invention, which uses Maine’s resources and labor, holds promise for the state’s economy.

“It’s our heritage industry,” Morales said. “We could be a really big player…exporting this product all over the country.”

The price of lumber and plywood increased 18% between December 2020 and December 2021, according to a 2022 report from Associated General Contractors of America. Property developer and lawyer Cullen Ryan said costs have risen across the board and wait times for materials have increased.

“We don’t have enough resources to create an adequate supply of affordable housing,” said Ryan, executive director of Community Housing of Maine. “If we can find a way to do it cheaply, we win.”

Relying on machines instead of manual labor will also allow them to “do more with fewer people,” Dagher said, which would be important in the face of labor shortages. Over the past two years, the construction industry has struggled to recruit and train workers, according to Associated General Contractors of Maine.

Matt Marks, a consultant representing the Associated General Contractors of Maine, said technological advancements are not a threat to the construction industry workforce. It could actually help recruit people into the industry and complement the work of people on the ground, said Marks, director of consultancy firm Cornerstone Government Affairs. People will always be needed in construction, he said, including in the case of the UMaine 3D printing project.

“You’ll still have carpenters doing modifications, you’ll still have drywall work, electricians and plumbers,” Marks said. “In a place like Maine, where the pool of young people has been shrinking since the late 80s… we will either have to recruit people from outside the Maine border or attract people who may be in other pathways careers, such as technology, to think of construction as an option.

Affordable housing developer Nathan Szanton said the construction industry is struggling with older workers retiring and there aren’t enough young workers on the ground to replace them.

“Young people seem to prefer jobs that involve technology like computer programming, or jobs that are indoor jobs like in air-conditioned environments like working in a call center, over working outdoors” , said Szanton, president of The Szanton Company. “It’s hard to find so many people these days who are willing to do hard physical work.”

The Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine has the largest polymer 3D printer in the world. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Dagher said the center aims to “produce the workforce of the future.” The “Factory of the Future”, which the ASCC plans to have in place and operating by 2025, will include a training center for students and industry professionals to learn how to operate, design and maintain machines and software involved in automated construction.

“We have to…not just develop the technology, but train the workforce that will be able to operate this equipment,” Dagher said. “What we’re trying to do is develop fundamental solutions to problems.”

The “factory of the future” is expected to be a $90 million facility, half of which has already been secured. Dagher said the center’s goal is to raise the remaining half of the funds in fiscal year 2023. Other investors in the facility include UMaine System, which has allocated $1.5 million, and the Department US Defense and Commerce Department.

Rep. Morales said it was important for the state to invest in the research university, which she said is “state-of-the-art.” Besides affordable housing, the CCSA is working on other projects such as floating wind turbines to generate power at sea and a spacecraft decelerator for NASA’s Mars mission.

“They have the brains, they have the energy to do this kind of work,” Morales said. “It will be essential for our state to invest as much as possible in the university system to continue to stimulate them so that they can do this work and then lead our state in creating these products.”

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