As communities across America face similar housing shortages, two local institutions are working together to research and test out a potential solution.
Iowa Central Community College and Iowa State University announced late last year the creation of their partnership in purchasing a colossal industrial 3D printer that will be used in constructing homes. The Iowa Economic Development Authority provided a $1.4 million grant to Iowa State’s College of Design for the 3D Affordable Innovation Technologies Housing Project.
As Iowa Central students are trained to use the technology, Iowa State students will be testing, researching and analyzing the tech, according to Pete Evans, an assistant professor in the Industrial Design Department at Iowa State. Evans is the lead on the 3D printer project.
The components of the 40-foot-wide printer have begun to arrive at Iowa Central’s East Campus, 2031 Quail Ave., and will be assembled in the next couple weeks, with the printer expected to be operational next month, Evans said. First they’ll focus on getting the printer to work and to understand how it operates throughout the fall and winter.
“We’ll do small tests, small micro-houses, different tests that we can do inside,” Evans said. “So this is a 12-month-a-year type of operation.”
Once the spring arrives, they’ll take the printer outside and try to do some tests outdoors.
“Something small-scale, where we can test different components with the concrete walls, and start to put together habitable types of shelter,” Evans said.
Next spring and summer, the schools will send crews down to Hamburg in Fremont County to put the printer to the test and actually build a house onsite.
This partnership and the project are a multi-faceted ecosystem, Evans said. The project and research that is done through it will include everything from technical education for the workforce, to materials science, to the economics and other things that can be leveraged to create suitable housing at a fast pace.
The 3D printing project could also have some long-term impacts on Iowa Central.
“We’ll be incorporating our current carpentry program into using the printer, exposing them to the new technology that’s available to us through this partnership,” said Neale Adams, associate vice president of instruction at Iowa Central.
Adams said there’s a possibility of the college designing an associate degree around advanced construction as a result of this equipment.
“We’ll figure out what we need to do to design a curriculum based around the equipment, because this is brand new to us,” he said.
3D printing is a new and evolving construction technology. The printer purchased by Iowa Central and Iowa State has a base cost of about $400,000. They’ll also be adding the material delivery system and other components to the machine. The printer will eventually be capable of fabricating building materials using concrete, insulation foam, plastic composites and other composite material, Evans said. They’re also looking at different material capacities that are more environmentally friendly than concrete, including corn stover, recycled glass, and even potentially recycled fiberglass from retired wind turbines.
“I think a big piece of this that is interesting is there’s not much research or information out about this technology,” Adams said.
This is one of the first programs in the country focused on using and testing 3D printing for home construction, Evans added.
Yavapai College in Arizona has a similar 3D concrete printing program.
“Along with that is to train a workforce for it,” said Dan Oswald, an Iowa Central carpentry instructor who will be working with the 3D printer. “So if it is feasible [as a construction tool], there’s going to be people in the industry with the ability to do it when it does come to the forefront.”
This partnership and the industrial 3D printing technology it brings with it can set Iowa Central apart from other schools, said Stacy Mentzer, vice president of instruction at Iowa Central.
“I think it means great things and it will be something that we can offer to students that other community colleges in the state can’t offer,” she said. “I think the increased opportunities are always good for the college.”