Designing a 3D Printer That Builds Homes

The Story

A robot designed to alleviate the global housing crisis

During the time of South by Southwest (SXSW) 2018, ICON, a construction technologies company, and their Vulcan I 3D printer pulled off a feat that was undoubtedly one of the most “buzzed” about happenings during the time of the festival. The Vulcan I printed the first fully permitted 3D printed home in the United States in about 47 hours across several days, with very minimal material waste. Building on the success of this proof-of-concept, ICON set out to develop its next generation printer, the Vulcan II, which would be ICON’s first commercially available large-scale printer designed specifically to 3D print resilient single-story buildings faster, more affordably, and with more design freedom. M3 Design was selected as ICON’s design partner to make sure the Vulcan II would successfully take this large step forward, not only in performance, but in usability and appearance. The Industrial Design of the Vulcan II would be ICON’s first physical embodiment of their brand, and would serve a significant role in ICON’s brand language moving forward. Vulcan II needed to be designed, built, and ultimately unveiled during a high-profile event in March 2019, as ICON’s new benchmark.

Vulcan II printing a home
"M3 Design was an indispensable design and engineering partner on the Vulcan II project during a very pivotal time for ICON. We value their strategic work and partnership." Jason Ballard ICON Founder and CEO
a finished home printed by the vulcan 2
The Concept

Brand Personification

Most construction equipment is aggressive and intimidating. M3 was tasked with achieving the exact opposite - a kinder, gentler design that would inspire curiosity rather than apprehension. The final direction was chosen for its iconic silhouette and simple geometry that mixed hard edges and rolling surfaces. Lighting effects were added for functionality on the work site and as a way to highlight the ICON brand. To tidy the exterior and ensure protection from the elements, all wiring and material hoses were routed internally up to the print head.

two children on the porch of a home printed by the vulcan 2

ICON’s long-term goal is bigger than building houses

ICON aims to use their robotics, software and advanced materials to tackle the global housing crisis and make homes more accessible by reducing cost. To achieve this goal, they needed to establish themselves as a cutting-edge purveyor of large-scale 3D printing technology.

Lighting Effects

Lighting effects were integrated throughout the printer. Night-time work site illumination is provided via lights in the towers and on the print nozzle. The soft, white glow of the long narrow strip along the x-axis and translating brand icon on the print head serve as beacons and highlight the ICON brand.

Tight Timeline

A rigid date had been set for the high-profile unveiling, meaning a seamless transition from concept to development was critical. M3’s design and engineering teams worked in tandem to nimbly address new challenges as they arose.

Fashionably Early

Nearly two hundred large-scale, machined and sheet metal parts were procured over a period of six weeks from M3’s extensive list of vendors and suppliers across the globe. Several M3 team members then worked on-site at ICON for two weeks to assemble and test the prototype in time for the launch event.

"The team pushed what was once a concept for future building into not just a livable, but also desirable, space to call home." Duncan Neilsen Dwell Media
construction worker monitoring a vulcan 2 as it prints a home
vulcan 2 printhead close-up
Austin Community First homes
a new homeowner
a finished vulcan 2 printed home

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