A completed 3D print of a hand. Photo: Karen Sandison/African News Agency(ANA)

CAPE TOWN – Imagine living in a city where if you wanted a house all you do is to print it.

A technology (the Vulcan 3D printer) that has been named by TIME magazine as one of the best inventions of 2018 has begun a process of making that dream a reality. The Vulcan 3D printer is a groundbreaking machine that erects the basic structure of a home, layer by layer, from concrete – at a fraction of the material and labour costs of traditional methods.

South Africa, as a country that has a major housing challenge, should pay attention to this solution and consider applying it locally to enable better living and address the informal settlements challenge. 

This year’s technology advancements have proved that it is possible to use the 3D printing technology to solve the housing challenge.

This year in March a non-profit entity, New Story, built a prototype 3D printed house in Texas, US. 

New Story is planning to build similar houses in the so-called developing world countries, such as El Salvador. 

New Story has been involved in the process of building houses in the developing world using traditional methods. 

The process takes time and it’s costly. Traditional methods used by New Story took eight months to build a community of 100 homes for $6 000 (R83 300). 

The Vulcan 3D printer can build one home a day at a cost of $4 000 per structure.

The printer – once it has been set – squirts out the concrete material in layers to build floors and walls, which harden as it goes. 

The printer releases the cement as per building specification and plan of the house. The roof, however, is not printed. 

The final result of this process is an energy-efficient and resilient structure that is built quickly.

The team that built the printer aims to have it available for a low cost – possibly for less than $100 000. It is estimated that a single printer can produce at least 1 000 homes. 

The only disadvantage with the 3D printer is that it reduces the number of people that can be involved in building the house. In fact, the house built by the 3D printer requires less labour, only two to four people.

Considering the economic and social damage that can be caused by shack fires and terrible living conditions experienced by people living in informal settlements, housing is a challenge that is ripe for technology solutions in South Africa. 

So far, this challenge has been ignored by the local tech start-up community. At the same time the Silicon Valley leadership has picked homelessness as a major challenge to solve in the San Francisco Bay area. 

Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon) and Marc Benioff (founder of Salesforce) have spent a significant amount of money in addressing the homelessness challenge in San Francisco. In the South African context, there’s a different challenge which relates to living conditions for those who live in informal settlements.

Advancements in the tech sector, particularly robotics and 3D printing, should inspire the local tech community to consider the informal settlements challenge as an area that can be solved. This is an opportunity for technology to truly make a difference in South Africa.

While local tech start-ups have developed solutions that make life easier in various sectors, very few of these are addressing major challenges. There’s a need for tech to focus on major challenges, and housing may be just one area to make a major difference.

Wesley Diphoko is the editor-in-chief of The Infonomist and the founder of Kaya Labs. You can follow him via Twitter at @WesleyDiphoko

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.