In a warehouse at the University of Maine, a groundbreaking additive manufacturing machine named Factory of the Future 1.0 stands ready to transform the construction industry. This gigantic 3D printer, touted as the largest thermoplastic-polymer printer in the world, has the potential to change the way many things are built.

Ostensibly a 3D printer, Factory of the Future 1.0 features a complex nozzle attached to a maze of wires hanging from a long steel chassis near the warehouse ceiling. This supersized version of additive manufacturing robots can print objects as large as 96 feet long, 32 feet wide, and 18 feet high, producing up to 500 pounds of material per hour. That’s enough to construct a 600-square-foot house in less than four days.

This machine does more than just spit out basic building materials. It also performs subtractive manufacturing tasks, like milling, and utilizes a robotic arm for more intricate operations. Additionally, it has a built-in system for laying down fibers within printed objects to enhance structural integrity, allowing for larger and more durable 3D-printed buildings.

“Calling it a printer is really a misnomer,” says Habib Dagher, executive director of the university’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center (ASCC). “It’s a hybrid digital manufacturing cell that brings multiple manufacturing processes together to produce different things.”

One of the primary focuses of this technology is housing. The new printer is an evolution of previous 3D printing technology developed at the University of Maine, where researchers have been exploring 3D printing methods and materials for years. Their work has emphasized using renewable bio-materials and waste products for additive manufacturing. In late 2022, the ASCC unveiled BioHome3D, a 3D-printed house made from sawdust and bio-resin. Unlike carbon-intensive concrete, the materials used in this prototype are 100% bio-based and recyclable, significantly reducing its carbon footprint.

Factory of the Future 1.0 can print objects four times larger than its predecessor. More impressively, it can perform multiple tasks, enabling it to build not just the walls or structure of a house, but also to integrate wiring, plumbing, and even install a kitchen. “We’re not printing a structure; we’re trying to print systems,” Dagher explains.

With funding from the Department of Defense and Maine’s state housing authority, this advanced manufacturing tool will be utilized in affordable housing projects and the construction of items like boats and flying machines. “What we’re developing with these integrated manufacturing processes in one build volume allows us to produce not just homes, but all kinds of other things,” Dagher says.

Quality control and assurance are crucial to this manufacturing approach. Dagher’s team is integrating sensors and artificial intelligence into the system to ensure precision during printing and to allow for self-correction if gaps become too large or pieces fall out of alignment. “There are a lot of opportunities to use this technology to do a lot of different things, not just housing. It’s about changing the way we manufacture things in general,” Dagher notes.

The next step for Dagher’s team is to expand their work by creating a nine-unit neighborhood of affordable homes in collaboration with the local nonprofit Penquis, with printing expected to begin next year. In the meantime, the team is fine-tuning the machine and working to increase its printing speed with a goal of producing a 600-square-foot house every 48 hours, equivalent to printing about 1,000 pounds of material per hour.

“We’ve gone from 20 pounds per hour to 500 over the last three years,” Dagher says. “Going to 1,000 is very feasible.”

By Impact Lab