Across the Lehigh Valley, businesses are speculating on the benefits of 3D printing

Melinda Rizzo, Contributing Writer//January 15, 2021

Across the Lehigh Valley, businesses are speculating on the benefits of 3D printing

Melinda Rizzo, Contributing Writer//January 15, 2021

3d printer
A 3D printing machine PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

Will 3D printing and artificial intelligence change the way roads, homes and bridges are built in the Lehigh Valley?

While the idea of an entirely 3D-printed road is probably many years away some processes are already automated, taking advantage of artificial intelligence “smart” technology, saving time, money and proving fresh options for the future of public infrastructure and developments are conceived and executed.

“How we repair our roads will change,” said Becky Bradley, executive director of Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, providing comprehensive planning for Northampton and Lehigh counties. Lehigh Valley Planning Commission’s office is in Hanover Township, Lehigh County.

She said autonomous construction vehicles are already being used on road projects, which protect workers from the right-of-way interference while on the job. 

Manufacturing facilities’ robots – a form of artificial intelligence — are already hard at work the Lehigh Valley, performing tasks on assembly and process lines. 

But Bradley expects the future to include sophisticated software able to understand critical if/then-logic thinking, which could help machines evolve to do more. 

“There are so many things that go into “machine learning” and that is what we are doing now,” Bradley said. 

“The Future Is Now” a Lehigh Valley Planning Commission released report outlining goals and plans for 3D printing and AI forms, encompasses Lehigh and Northampton counties and drills down to the micro level at the 62 municipal governments, 39 public water and sewer entities and 17 school districts comprising them. 

Bradley said local and county government was rising to the challenge and despite the coronavirus pandemic, restrictions and mandated shutdowns, growth here continued. She expects 3D printing to revolutionize various parts of the construction industry in coming years, such as printing a repair parts for a home or business facility, as well as creating a more localized supply chain. 

“[To] not rely on a supply chain from southeast Asia for parts or repairs to the home, which is how things happen now, provides tremendous flexibility and opportunity for our [property owners] and our workforce,” Bradley said.

Current advances in 3D printed plastics and metals will continue to evolve across the construction and industry spectrum.

“If you can do metals, you can roll equipment to a construction site and 3D print what you need and not wait six months to get steel from another place,” she said.

She believes companies will see the options as both a route to cost savings and a growing workforce opportunity.

There are limits

Brian Slocum, director of the additive manufacturing lab at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, said large scale public improvements to building bridges or roads are “pretty far away from becoming mainstream” in the near future.

 “There are some severe limitations when we start to talk about printing concrete, which is what much of these large scale things are doing,” he said.

Extruding concrete, which is a mix of stone and aggregate, becomes difficult in the 3D realm because cement must be converted to slurry, with a cake batter-like consistency in order to be applied through a circular nozzle.

Where 3D concrete construction works well is in single story small homes, similar to a cement block building application. Where gains are being made in construction are single floor concrete houses built in China, Europe and Russia. It’s proving useful for temporary housing in areas hard-hit by natural disaster.

Slocum agreed costs for small home 3D construction are reduced in the housing industry because labor is cheaper: the 3D printer can work around the clock and is self-directed aside from when it needs more material added to it. 

“What I love about it is you can create structures we have never made before with more fine detail and more interesting curvature,” Slocum explained.

“It gives you a glimmer of what may potentially be possible,” he said.

3D’s best uses

The 3D printing process is ideal for curves or more intricate architectural elements that may be harder and more costly to achieve with conventional building forms and materials. It’s also a good application for small areas that are geometrically complex or part specific, and it allows the maker to bypass steps for molds and castings, reducing time, materials and expense.

Slocum said 3D technology still lags well behind conventional manufacturing, which is currently superior for making items in quantity and repetition.

 “It [3D printing] has changed the world and it enables us to do things we couldn’t do before, like SpaceX. They are 3D printing a lot of parts, because they’re making five rockets, and not five million rockets,” Slocum said.

SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies Corp., founded by Elon Musk, is an aerospace manufacturer and transportation firm in California. It focuses on a reusable space launch system.

When manufacturing requires scaling larger runs, taking any portion of infrastructure and moving it toward 3D printing “is a long way off,” Slocum said.

From a cost perspective, many of the common raw materials for 3D construction are available in the Lehigh Valley, Bradley said.  The Lehigh Valley has experienced a significant period of sustained growth and change, and she believes 3D printing and AI are a vital part of the future. 

It’s only a matter of time before more gains are possible using 3D printing and artificial intelligence in the larger landscape, she said.

“You have to get the 3D printers right. They are the vehicle to do all of these other things,” Bradley said.