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Where’s the Automation in Building Construction?


This story began a few months ago when I started looking at building sites still dominated by manual labor. Even today, structures are in many respects hand built. Machines are employed primarily to supplement the strength of workers; using cranes, drills, etc. but these are under direct control of humans. This contrasts to an automotive assembly line for example, where robotics have been employed for years. However, there are two trends afoot that may impact automation in building construction. The first is that technologies for construction have improved, and the second is that there is a shortage of construction labor. As a result, there may be opportunities for technical innovation in the construction industry.

Given the situation sketched above, as a thought experiment, I wondered how much automated construction could be incorporated in a building of medium complexity, using an example of what’s stereotypically known as a “5 over 1” multifamily residential building, a common building type here in the Seattle area and one becoming more common across the country.

This building category consists of a concrete or rarely steel “podium” structure of one floor, or a single floor with mezzanine, topped with 4 or 5 stories of wood framed housing units. Cost and to an extent building code issues aside, I wondered how much automation could be reasonably applied to such a structure throughout the complete building planning, design and construction process?

In summary, the prototypical “5 over one” project could employ considerable automation:

·     Site Surveyed using semi automated software and hardware.

·     Structure designed with Building Information Modeling software (BIM) so that architecture, engineering, cost estimation, scheduling, subcontracting, shop drawings, sub assemblies and overall project management would be integrated, working from a common database.

·     Excavation and grading for the foundation controlled by software and hardware configured to operated, conventional manned earth moving machinery

·     Some of the concrete foundation and podium structure’s steel reinforcement formed and assembled in the shop using semi-automated tools and methods. Steel tied together on – site using power tools.

·     The housing units stacked above the podium structure could employ one of the following;  a) panelized, b) semi modular, or c) fully modular construction, based on wood framing but optionally cold formed steel. Some modular technologies incorporate pre installed, weatherized exterior walls, while others require enclosure after modules have been placed. The degree of automation in the panel and module factories varies. Membrane roofing involves semi-automated welding techniques.

In theory, considerable automation can be applied to such a multifamily project. But considerable gaps in automation remain. And, it remains to be seen how cost effective this would be. Here are some selected details on the software, hardware and vendors that might be employed.

BIM Drives It All:

There is growing uese of Building Information Modeling (BIM) throughout the AEC Industry. BIM facilitates automated construction processes upstream/downstream. Beginning with architecture/engineering structural design, BIM then provides the basis for mechanical electrical and plumbing layout, as well as specialty sub discipline design and shop drawings, quantity surveys, cost estimates, construction schedules, and resource scheduling during construction. BIM is the basis for the code that drives automated the manufacturing and fabrication processes for modules and sub assemblies, such as steel, engineered wood, windows, and a host of other materials and assemblies.

Selected Software/Hardware Vendors:

Autodesk Revit – Full featured AEC Design https://www.autodesk.com/products/revit-family/overview

Bentley Microstation – Full featured AEC Design https://www.bentley.com/en/solutions/project-delivery/architecture-and-engineering

Vectorworks – Full featured AEC Design http://www.vectorworks.net/

Related Software Products Driven by BIM:

Shop Drawings – AGACAD – shop drawings http://www.aga-cad.com/products/bim-solutions/smart-assemblies/features

Panel Fabrications Drawings for cold formed steel and wood frame – Vertex http://www2.argos.com/web/argos/steel?gclid=CjwKCAjw47bLBRBkEiwABh-Pkf3vjMFNhdClvm_tqvR_UfSnKYGcdZqmAFvIevUW1ZyFOUmrEY0nJhoCJn4QAvD_BwE .

Light Steel Framing Layout - http://strucsoftsolutions.com/products

Enterprise Project Management and Scheduling – Oracle Primavera https://www.oracle.com/applications/primavera/solutions/index.html#capital

Cost estimation – Sage Timberline - http://www.sage.com/us/sage-construction

Control of site grading and excavation equipment – Trimble Earthworks - https://construction.trimble.com/earthworks

Foundation and Podium:

Generally reinforced concrete. Shop formed, preassembled rebar units for decks and columns, reducing need for on site assembly. However, no fully robotic shop rebar assembly and welding systems identified at this point.

Selected Vendors

Rebar detailing software- https://www.asarebar.com/Solutions/RebarSoftware.aspx.

Rebar detailing and placing - https://www.tekla.com/us/solutions/rebar-fabricators

Automated rebar bending - http://www.krbmachinery.com/magnaBend211.html.

Steel subassemblies - https://www.tekla.com/evolution/steel-fabrication.html

Modular Construction:

Modular building is already a well established product nationwide in the residential and workforce housing category and growing in popularity for selected, small commercial/institutional buildings. There are dozens of vendors throughout the US. Modular also has begun to penetrate low rise multifamily housing, dormitories and healthcare applications. Depending on the application, modules may come fully finished, including cladding for exterior walls or may require cladding after erection for multistory modular projects. Based on the building type and code requirements, modules may be either wood or light steel framed.

At the modular factory, assembly techniques range from simple manual framing – undertaken in a uniform climate controlled space – to use of simple jigs, to quite automated panel fabrication using robotics that cut, lay out and join pieces together in panels.

At the lower end of the residential market some simple homes offer outright cost advantages compared to site built. However, for mid-rise and higher projects, modular construction’s principal claimed advantage now appears to be time/cost saving on the overall construction schedule.

Selected Vendors

Blokable – a system of combinable steel framed modern modular units http://www.blokable.com/ for residential, institutional and commercial use

Kasita – modern modular furnished housing units https://kasita.com/

Katerra – a vertically integrated modern modular and building product  company https://katerra.com/

Guerdon – a large producer of modular projects http://www.guerdonmodularbuildings.com/

Lindbacks – large Swedish producer of modular projects using highly automated factory fabrication techniques http://www.lindbacks.se/

Skystone Group – employing steel framed modular units manufactured in Poland for mid and low – high rise structures in the US http://www.skystonegroup.com/modular-construction-nyc

Sub Modules; Bath and Kitchen

Where repeated identical units are found in facilities such as hotels, hospitals and dormitories there will be increasing use of modularized bathroom and kitchen units. These modules may be installed in both conventional and more automated building projects.


Oldcastle - https://oldcastlesurepods.com/

Pivotek - http://pivotek.net/


Even where full modular is not used, more panelized building units will be delivered to the site – both wood frame and light steel based. Drawing on BIM data and shop built, they are fabricated on increasingly automated production lines. Panel components, such as studs and wall sheathing, are fed into the assembly line, laid out, cut and fastened together.


Software and Hardware – Weinmann – Automated wood framed panel fabrication line.


Armstrong - https://www.armstrong-homes.com/wall-panels

Sto Corp - http://www.stocorp.com/panelization-us/

Cross Laminated Timber (CLT):

While technically a panel product, CLT warrants a separate category due to its growing influence and adoption. CLT is fabricated using similar technologies to other engineered wood products like glued laminated, “glulam” beams and columns. Panels are glued together from dimensional lumber under pressure, then pre-cut and routed for openings and connectors, before shipping to the job site.


Structurelam, British Columbia - http://www.structurlam.com/

DR Johnson, Oregon - http://www.drjlumber.com/

Miscellaneous Automation

While not complete technologies these are worth noting.

Brick laying robot – http://www.construction-robotics.com/

Printed house – http://apis-cor.com/en/3d-printer

Steel Reinforcing Bar Tie – er - https://www.amazon.com/MABELSTAR-Rebar-RT-550-Automatic-Machine/dp/B06Y5W4K7W/ref=sr_1_45?m=A2VE3CZUQP20IO&s=power-hand-tools&ie=UTF8&qid=1494432221&sr=1-45&refinements=p_6%3AA2VE3CZUQP20IO

Automated Survey - http://www.trimble.com/Survey/Total-Station-SX10.aspx


There is a shortage of construction labor https://www.tradesmeninternational.com/news-events/the-construction-labor-shortage-where-did-all-the-skilled-labor-go/. This has been created by a labor exodus from the construction industry during and after the Great Recession; also by uncertainty about the immigration status of many Hispanic workers who traditionally have been a source of construction labor. As a result, the construction industry will need to do more with fewer people. That is, in economic terms, it must become more productive and automation is the key. Here’s the trends I see.

Continuing Growth of BIM

This facilitates automation throughout the value chain including Survey, Design, Architectural, Civil, Structural and Mechanical design and all aspects of construction management and all aspects of detailing and manufacturing.

More Shop Fabrication

In general, more construction work moving to the shop or factory, where controlled conditions lend themselves to automation and higher productivity. Think more assemblies and subassemblies being prefabricated, using fewer workers.

More Modular

Expect more use of modular construction in multifamily housing, hospital, and hotel construction in addition to single family residential. At some point, with greater efficiency and volume, modular for multifamily and commercial will become cost competitive on a cost/sf basis, not just based on time savings. Also expect the degree of automation and robotics in modular factories to grow.

More Semi Modular

As above, anticipate more use of modular sub – assemblies, principally bathrooms and kitchens which are labor and material intensive. These will be employed in both modular construction, or in conventionally framed projects.

More Panelization

Panelized building for interior walls, floors and including exterior wall panels, incorporating windows and cladding.

More Automated Fabrication

More miscellaneous sub-assemblies fabricated using automated means. Site fabrication will continue to decrease.

More Automated Measurement and Control

More use of automated measurement and control on building sites and projects and integrated with BIM.

Cross Laminated Timber in Low High Rise

Growing use of cross laminated timber in midrise and low – high rise construction which appears to be the sweet spot.

No Robots with Hammers, but you might see one Laying Bricks

Finally, it’s unlikely to see a robot with a hammer and hard hat on a job site anytime soon, but you might see one laying bricks. The Washington Post featured a story recently about a free roaming security robot that fell into a fountain at a large mixed use development in the Georgetown neighborhood https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2017/07/17/a-security-robot-fell-into-a-water-fountain-at-a-d-c-office-building-and-the-internet-went-wild/?utm_term=.8e612a5bcd80 . We wonder why it hadn’t been taught to swim.

Living with the Smart City; and Making Construction Smarter

Have you noticed how the Smart City seems to have appropriated much of what used to be called urban planning? Virtually every city physical function is now a test bed for data driven approaches, often augmented with sensors and controls. All this is mediated by code. This situation squares with Marc Andreessen’s assertion that “software is eating the world.” One interesting result is that IBM, Microsoft, Cisco, etc. have become de facto purveyors of urban design and planning under the Smart City rubric. A further upshot is that metaphorical software “platforms,” public and private, if not actually replacing bricks and mortar infrastructure, have conjoined with their physical counterparts to become the backbones of urban life.

This transformation hasn’t happened overnight and it is ongoing. We can speculate with confidence that over the next couple of decades virtually every societal function and every process related to making things will be digitized, data driven and automated – or at least there will be an attempt to do so. The assumptions are that such initiatives can deliver benefits: cheaper, better, quicker, more socially equitable goods and services than their less digitally enabled urban forbearers. However, it’s likely not all Smart initiatives will deliver the goods on all counts. Privacy and security issues are major considerations, with disruptions to the labor market likely to follow. And some forays into urban automation may simply not work.

In striking juxtaposition to the powerful digital trends transforming urban systems are the conventional, non-automated methods by which cities – infrastructure and buildings – are constructed. The “Less Smart” of the title is no reflection on city builders themselves but an indication of challenges; what is it about construction that so resists automation?

There is a distinction between construction mechanization and automation. The former simply provides an assist to humans; examples are a nail gun and backhoe replacing a hammer and a shovel. Construction automation, by contrast, would imbue machines, robots essentially, with enough intelligence to act on minimal human intervention, self – assembling all or parts of buildings and systems such as roads or other infrastructure.

Why is there such a disjunct between smart city systems and seeming antediluvian methods for construction? Aside from mobile homes and manufactured housing, which are constructed in factories, and which bear some resemblance to consumer goods manufacturing, virtually all infrastructure and buildings are site built and customized. Roads and buildings aren’t cars, more or less identical and built on a stable and controllable assembly line; they must adapt to many specific geographies and physical conditions to be readily standardized like a consumer product. At the human level, construction also requires too much cognitive adaptability, dexterity and spatial mobility for workers to be easily replaced by robots. Even an unskilled laborer must be able to quickly change roles on a construction project, picking up materials, digging, moving an item, etc. Try asking a robot to do just that sort of multi tasking.

Does this situation mean that more automation is forever out of reach in construction? We think that is unlikely. Technology advances wherever there is the promise of benefits. By the way, we’re not arguing that automation in construction is inherently better than more labor intensive approaches. In fact, construction automation may be quite disruptive to the labor markets. There will be winners and losers with this industrial transformation. However, short of a future where fully autonomous robots construct roads and buildings what is a likely direction for smarter construction?

While the assembly process in construction may not yet be automated a closer look at the industry shows that a host of digital technologies illustrated below have begun converge around the process – and people – that assemble buildings and infrastructure. Many of these technologies already exist but their application may only occur in the largest, most sophisticated projects. So the act of placing and fastening building components may not be digitally determined and automated yet, but many of the processing leading up to actual assembly have been digitally implemented.

We can expect that as many such technologies become ubiquitous this will set the stage for greater degrees of automation. Then, cities may hopefully be both built a bit smarter and operate smarter, too.

urban design implications of the smart city – and the cloud

For any given location in a large city in the developed word there are dozens of data points and feeds in the cloud. Some of these information streams fall under the category of Smart City initiatives: street lights reporting themselves in need of replacement, traffic and weather, parking spaces and EV charging stations available, buses arriving shortly, etc.

As an urban designer and member of the Smart City community, I have been thinking about implications of the IoT for bricks and mortar urban design (refer to the attached). Locally, how will it impact Puget Sound cities like Bellevue; especially with Light Rail implementation afoot? I expect the streetscape will evolve; both roads w dedicated lanes, and sidewalks, to accommodate more ride sharing/ride hailing and charging infrastructure.
Online shopping and autonomous delivery will necessitate building accommodations; loading ports and lockers. Conventional small retail will diminish in the face of online sales. In growing cities like Bellevue the trend will be for smaller dwelling units, to keep housing affordable. As a result there will be greater demand for public amenities and “living rooms” like coffee shops, bars and parks for inhabitants of such small spaces. What other interactions between the cloud and built environment can be expected; for example, how will distributed energy resources transform the grid and urban fabric?

the future of Seattle

I recently appeared as a panelist at the University of Washington on the Future of Seattle.  Here are my talking points on the City and the Region – mostly oriented to environment, innovation and planning.

It’s the Seattle/Puget Region, not Simply the City

When we talk about Seattle, the City, proper, usually gets the attention. In fact the City contains only about one sixth of the Puget region’s population of 3.6 million people in several quite densely urbanized areas across 3 counties, with several dozen towns and municipal authorities like Sound Transit, Metro and the Ports of Seattle/Tacoma to boot. Importantly, some of the region’s largest employers, like Boeing and Microsoft lie outside the City. We need to think regionally; outside the Seattle City limits.

My Vision for the Region

Utopian Version:  I hope that Seattle will illustrate a successful experiment; where an innovative low carbon economy, supports an equitable standard of living, a fulfilling quality of life preserving biological diversity; more simply, salmon in the rivers and Orcas in the Sound.

Dystopian Version: I fear for a Seattle with a hotter climate, more sprawling development, beset with traffic jams, greater income inequality, homelessness, water shortages, fewer salmon, no Orcas.

In short the latter scenario sounds something like parts of California. With no offense to the Golden State, the Pacific Northwest shouldn’t be like this. Top it off with a major earthquake and it’s a grim picture.


One way or another we must put a price on carbon. It’s a global issue but we must do our part locally and more. This year the State will address climate related rule making initiated by Gov. Inslee and there will be an Initiative on the ballot to tax carbon. Regardless how the State addresses the issue, clean, carbon – limiting technology should be one of the cornerstones of our regional economy and it represents a great opportunity.


Transit is the framework that facilitates so many public benefits; a smaller carbon footprint, a chance to maintain a more historical climate, connections to affordable accessible housing and workplaces, efficient access to public services, less congestion, shorter commutes. Sound Transit 3 coming up in this election cycle is vital to achieving this objective. This is my top priority.

Prosperity and Economy

A vibrant economy is the engine that powers all things. If Seattle wasn’t prosperous I doubt a higher minimum wage would have been possible. Prosperity funds bond issues; public investments in infrastructure and education. If raising the minimum wage works for the cities of Seattle and SeaTac, why not for other adjacent cities; Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond should be next.


Innovations often arise from taking something learned in one field and applying it to another field.  The coming de-carbonization of the economy represents a huge transformational opportunity for innovation.  In the Industrial Revolution, burning carbon laden fossil fuels, mostly coal, transformed the global economy. Seattle can be a leader in the market transformation away from fossil fuels. Here’s a few examples of the cleantech economy:

  • A Seattle startup, Impact Bioenergy, with a technology that takes food waste and turns it into electrical power and high quality fertilizer.
  • Another, Adaptive Symbiotic Technologies is using naturally occurring organisms to treat seeds for drought and heat resistance.
  • Community solar projects in Seattle on Capitol Hill and Beacon Hill sponsored by City Light partnering with community organizations allow people to participate in solar who may not own their homes or who live in apartments.
  • In Redmond, Helion Energy is developing nuclear fusion to create electric power.
  • Maker spaces are opening in conjunction with schools, colleges and other venues throughout the area, including UW.

Urban Environment; Trees, Parks, Walking, Biking

  • Walking Vast swathes of Seattle’s North and South End’s still don’t have sidewalks. This is a public safety concern and also disincentive to use transit. Many parts of Seattle have high walk scores, yet others don’t.
  • Biking: Geography hasn’t been too kind to Seattle’s cyclists but this is no reason not to optimize north/south routes in the City that tend to have gentler grades.
  • Trees Seattle’s trees, on streets, yards and in parks support healthy ecosystem. But it’s troubling that present tree cover is about 50% reduced from 40 years ago. The forest canopy provides vital environmental services; carbon sequestration, shade and surface cooling, habitat, water quality benefits. We need more trees and this shouldn’t require large investment.
  • Parks For a City so associated with the Great Outdoors Seattle’s parks lag a bit compared to other cities, Portland, Minneapolis, WDC, NYC and SF for several examples. Land acquisition is very expensive. One approach to mitigate the paucity of parks might be to make existing public spaces, like streets, more inviting and park – like. The other would be to offer development bonuses for creating publicly accessible open spaces.


Density matters. It makes transit cost effective, supports services, and facilitates affordability. Not everyone is going to like it but Seattle will continue to grow. As many as a million new residents are expected to arrive in the region by 2040. What is the alternative to density; wall to wall development to the foot of the Cascades and more two hour commutes? We’re moving in that direction now. That growth should occur in concentrated, well planned areas, offering transit and public services. For example, Bellevue’s created a high density housing district downtown and the town has begun to be real city rather than merely a high rise office park and shopping mall.


Here are some useful data points:

Population: Seattle city 662,000 est City of Sea, Seattle region about 3.8 million. Expected growth of about 1 million by 2040. Source Puget Sound Regional Council. http://www.psrc.org/data/forecasts

Transit Score: Seattle ranks about 10th in accessibility similar to Minneapolis. By comparison San Francisco ranks 2nd, after NYC.  Source Walkscore https://www.walkscore.com/WA/Seattle

Walk Score: Seattle 8th compared to SF at 2 and closer to WDC and Oakland. Source Walkscore https://www.walkscore.com/WA/Seattle

Parks Score: Seattle ranks 10th below Minneapolis is 1 with SF and NYC at 4 and 5, source Parkscore Trust for Public Lands http://parkscore.tpl.org/

Affordability: Seattle is an index of about 120 compared to SF/Silicon Valley at 160 and Portland at 110, Source Infoplease  http://www.infoplease.com/business/economy/cost-living-index-us-cities.html

GHG Emissions: Almost 65% of Seattle emissions from passenger vehicles and freight. Source City of Seattle Emissions Inventory http://www.seattle.gov/Documents/Departments/OSE/2012%20GHG%20inventory%20report_final.pdf

Trees: Seattle’s urban tree cover (canopy) reduced by 50% during the last 40 years. Source City urban forestry plan. http://www.seattle.gov/Documents/Departments/OSE/2012%20GHG%20inventory%20report_final.pdf

making the cloud of environmental data visible for the Puget region

Seattle is the center of cloud computing. What if we could literally see a little piece of that metaphorical cloud; a part that monitors and describes what’s happening in our local environment? It could help us better understand and manage our region. To this end I’ve conceived a proposed art/science/geography installation called “Transect.”

The premise for the proposal is that science, alone, cannot fully engage public awareness when it comes to local environmental issues. Therefore, the proposed exhibit, called “Transect,” appeals to both the rational and emotional. It draws from the cloud of streaming data; building on the extensive existing network of environmental sensors in our region, presenting data in an immersive and literal cloud of images and graphics. Art and science, married, will create a powerful and persuasive experience for the public. See the slide deck here transect pres ecarlson .

wazzup with houellebecq; the map and the territory

I’ve just finished Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory. There’s also a piece in this week’s New Yorker about him and his new book, Submission, which imagines France with an elected Islamist President and has been widely lauded as prescient, given recent events.

But, back to The Map…it is not an elegantly written book. Nominally about the life of a passive, unintentionally successful artist and his marginal relationships with people, the characters are pretty schematic and the story more an interesting concept than a compelling narrative. I say this having read only a translation, but reviewers of the French version seem to agree on the text’s lack of style. The novel reads as more of a platform to expound on the topics below among others, rather than a character or plot driven work. I use bullets following since Houellebecq often seems to attack these subjects as virtually and almost arbitrarily inserted outline items; some apparently lifted wholesale from wikipedia:

  • the business and role of representation in contemporary art
  • police procedure and culture
  • contemporary technology, corporations and cosmopolitan influences in France
  • automobile preferences
  • dread associated with aging and physical decline
  • Parisian – versus French – village culture

Perhaps the least schematic and most emotionally resonant aspect of the story is the sad relationship of the protagonist with his father. All considered, the book wasn’t devoid of interest, if you happen to follow art, technology and contemporary culture and can tolerate a decidedly misanthropic world view. If you don’t, skip it.

geography informing politics; a project retrospective in the mediterranean

I have recently revisited a project completed more than 20 years ago; a Geographic Information System (GIS) analysis of the Mediterranean Basin conducted as a consultant for the World Bank.  In the early 90’s the Bank was intrigued to see if geographic information could help inform a region – wide environmental investment program. I have attached copies of a couple of the maps and notes created for the project here Environmental Program for the Mediterranean; geographic snapshot .

It came as no surprise 20+ years ago to my colleagues and me that GIS analysis reinforced the Med region, particularly the Southern and Eastern parts of the basin, as an area experiencing environmental and demographic stress. To quote Bob Dylan, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind’s blows.”  However, it’s still a bit unnerving to browse a 20 year old geographic snapshot of the region in view of what has unfolded subsequently. For those of us geo – graphically oriented there’s something considerably more powerful about a map delineating, for example, a region with a high population growth rate, water shortages and limited arable land, than merely reading a table tucked into a report. Somehow the geopolitical train wreck of the Southern/Eastern Med just appears so much more tangible when arrayed across the page. Mind you, we had incomplete data in 1991, and our analysis wasn’t all that sophisticated. Also, the geographic limits of the study to the Mediterranean basin left out key areas; Syria and Iraq for examples, don’t figure.

But the takeaway remains that this was a region under stress for a variety of factors; politics being the immediate expression of geography and economics, and the maps showed that pretty decisively. While it would be grandiose to think that wider dissemination of geographic information at 20 years ago would have made a difference in a part of the world that has been so historically fraught, perhaps a lesson here is to pay closer attention to what geography is telling us now about emerging situations in other parts of the world. Climate driven impacts certainly come to mind.

placemaking is about more than decor

This is Seattle, right, the home of the coffee meeting. I have just concluded a couple of these at Starbucks; where else? The eponymous coffee brewer has defined the premium coffee chain category and has become the default off – site, out – of – the – house venue for working/meeting countrywide. But the interesting thing about today’s meeting on Seattle’s Eastside, was that this store was in the middle of remodeling. We got bare concrete floors and walls, and exposed metal studs and the place was still jammed; every table taken and about 70% of the patrons apparently engaged in meetings or working alone. The point is that this location has apparently become so firmly established that people will patronize it even when the furnishings are closer to a church basement than an upscale coffee bar. The brand is so strongly associated with the new style of work that it transcends decor. I’m wondering what will happen when the makeover is actually finished? Will business go down?

A Short History of Making

the promise of additive manufacturing

In the beginning, the consumer was also the producer. People made simple tools and weapons and used them to survive. Gradually, consumer and producer grew apart. Nowadays, many of the objects we use are made half a world away. But, this could change, with the advent of a disruptive technology. Consumers and producers may once again be in close proximity.

Many of you will recognize the pictured item as created with a 3D printer. This technology is also called additive manufacturing, since very thin layers of material are added successively to create a three dimensional shape.  Additive manufacturing promises to transform the way many things are made and in so doing change sizable portions of the economy.

Briefly, this is what additive manufacturing promises:

  • Accelerates product development by rapid prototyping
  • Renders small run and custom parts feasible by virtue of no tooling
  • Makes heretofore impossibly complex shapes and assemblies buildable
  • Shortens supply chains by placing manufacturing closer to the consumer

While not all of these objectives have been fully achieved, 3D printing has become increasingly cheap and ubiquitous. Read other blog posts here to review my experience with additive manufacturing. As with most new technologies, the development path is not entirely smooth, but the upside is huge. The diagram below sketches a short history – and likely – future of making. For a larger printable version of the diagram click the pdf link.

pdf of  A Short History (and future) of Making

Economics of Additive Manufacturing

I’ve written previously about the advantages of digital fabrication and additive manufacturing (3D printing) specifically. But how do the economics for 3 D printing stack up in the real world against conventional manufacturing techniques such as injection molding.

Summarizing 3D printing selling points:

  1. Ability to print shapes and assemblies likely impossible with other methods – such as intricately formed or nested shapes and structures.
  2. Ease of creating custom shaped objects to meet individual parameters – such as ergonomically tailored sports or medical devices.
  3. Ability to manufacture low volume, but high value objects cost effectively by eliminating expensive tooling and molding.

3D printing offers some clear advantages in the instances one and two above. For instance one, when there are no other physically feasible manufacturing options for a particular form, 3D printing is the only choice. Printing simply does what cannot be accomplished by other means.

Instance number two is somewhat similar. A custom formed object/device fits an individual perfectly and will be produced only once or at most a few times for that person. A conventionally injection molded piece might be too expensive, given the high costs of molds. 3D printing has a clear advantage in both these cases. But what about case three – an anticipated low volume run or a situation where it doesn’t make sense to invest in sizable opening inventories?

Let’s look at an example. In two previous posts I described digital fabrication of a moderately complex lamp of my design, using 3D printed plastic and laser cut acrylic parts. The lamp is made of a central hub which holds the electrical socket and has twisted fins that extend to attach laser cut pieces comprising the lamp shade. (see the white finned hub component in the picture below). What would a comparatively low volume conventional, injection molded hub piece cost, versus the 3D printed version?

Fortunately, it’s now possible to get online quotes for both injection molded and 3D printed parts. I used www.IcoMold.com to estimate injection molded hub pieces and www.Shapeways.com for 3D printing estimates.

3D printing vs. injection molding

Total manufacturing costs, for selected quantities from 1 – 75 units are shown above. Costs exclude design and shipping and compare injection molding (red line) and 3D printing (blue line). The major cost with injection molding is the mold, itself, which in this case, costs about $8,500. In a convenient statistical breakoff, manufacturing runs of less than 50 units yield a lower total cost than for 3D printing.  As can be seen, there are few economies of scale in printed parts, aside from perhaps amortizing design and reducing inventory costs. Unlike molding, the 75th part costs as much as to produce as the first unit. Having said this, manufacturing runs greater than 50 may also be cost effective for 3D printing when factoring in inventory/stocking costs.

What does this analysis suggest? Extremely limited volume and custom, one-off, high value parts and products will be increasingly produced with 3D printing. We can also expect that as 3D printing costs decline – as they surely will – more and more spare parts and limited production parts will be fabricated by printing. Another important cost factor not included here is that transportation costs – and carbon footprints – should be reduced. Many injection molded parts are made in China, requiring extended supply chains and logistics which are costly in both financial terms and environmental impact. Printed parts are also easier on cash flows. With greatly reduced upfront manufacturing costs, entrepreneurs can invest in products with less trepidation.


We develop and market energy efficiency strategies and technologies. We focus on the building and transportation sectors, which account for more than two thirds of the energy budget.