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November 3, 2017

3D-printed steel touted as the future of B.C. home construction

A Vancouver company is hoping to disrupt the local construction framing industry with new technology that can “print” steel studs and accelerate the building process.

LifeTec Construction Group Inc., which has an 8,000-square-foot warehouse near East Broadway and Renfrew Street, has already caught the attention of some local upscale homebuilders and has taken on a number of small, private projects. The company said the plan is to move eventually into construction of mid-rise and commercial/industrial structures traditionally built from wood.

LifeTec founder and president Krishna Jolliffe said 3D-printed steel’s advantages over wood include durability, resistance to mould and warping, environmental friendliness and shorter construction time.

“Right now, on any construction project in the Lower Mainland, time is a huge factor,” Jolliffe said, citing Lower Mainland’s construction labour shortage and its impact on building timelines and costs. “When you are dealing with a lack of labour, speeding up those time frames creates huge efficiencies for any builder. So I don’t think we’ll always be able to show people savings, because we aim to come in at the same cost as traditional methods, but on any project, we’ll have a significant time advantage.”

LifeTec uses the Framecad system, which was first introduced in New Zealand but is now available throughout Australia, Asia, Europe, Africa and South America.

Typically, 3D printing for metallic materials like steel uses lasers to shape the steel source material, and the printers can reach extremely high temperatures during operation. But Jolliffe noted that LifeTec’s process is completely mechanical – with a building’s frame designed on a computer, then having individual modular parts, studs and panels manufactured by specialized 3D printers. The parts are then shipped to the construction site and assembled, with minimal on-site cutting, drilling or modifications.

“There is no heat created whatsoever (in LifeTec’s process), which is a big part of our manufacturing value proposition,” he said. “Any manufacturing process that creates high heat means a lot of energy is required; whereas our process consumes minimal amounts of energy.”

Tthe overall space requirement for a single 3D printing machine is much smaller than what is needed for production-line steelmaking equipment.

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