For many, the term “3D printing” conjures images of tabletop devices carving items in a neat, high-tech way. But 3D printers are quickly gaining traction across the construction industry and while the concept may be similar to that of their smaller cousins, the scale of builder-grade printers is off the charts, and their application is more than a trend — some call it a revolution.
At the forefront of that movement is Black Buffalo 3D. The company produces large-scale 3D construction printers, which are heavy pieces of equipment and technology that utilize a cement ready-mix blend as the “ink,” allowing clients to print structures like full homes and commercial buildings right on the job site.
“There’s a revolution, essentially,” says Tim Murphy, Black Buffalo 3D’s head of business development, on the enthusiasm his company has seen for its product and methodology. “It’s almost a 4.0 [Fourth Industrial Revolution] for construction, which is one of the last industries to hear about how technology can change the face of how we go to market. We’re at the very beginning of it, and it’s exciting.”
The origins of Black Buffalo 3D reach across the Pacific to South Korea, where the entity was established by the grandson of the founders of Hyundai Corp., according to Peter Cooperman, head of marketing and strategy for Big Sun Holdings Group, which was formed in 2020 to serve as the global accelerator for the project.
“Our parent in South Korea had a printer that would print around 100 sq. ft. of mortar and different materials. They saw a real business potential from that, so they started Black Buffalo 3D. Our job was to take that technology and commercialize the printers,” Cooperman says, adding that “the second prototype was fully functional and remains one of the tallest 3D printers in the world at four stories high.”
Feedback from more than a year of visits from 150-plus companies and industry experts led to the launch of the current modular three-story-tall printer, the NEXCON 1G, in early 2022. The printer runs on a rail system that can extend infinitely for long runs or to print structures on adjacent properties by simply extending the rails and can be operated by a crew of four to five people.
Before the process could be unleashed in the construction market, the cement-based ink needed to be perfected. Black Buffalo linked with international partners MAPEI, a manufacturer of chemical products for the building industry, and Intertek, an inspection, product testing and certification company, to develop a blend that would be suitable for structure erection on a global scale.
“We wanted to make sure that all our customers had to do was add water,” Cooperman says. “We looked at how we could make a formula that could work better so we didn’t have to stop printing; some companies out there have to stop every seven or eight layers for it to cure and set up to support the following layers. We also looked at ingredients to make sure our ink could work over a wide variety of circumstances and be sourced globally.”
Cooperman says the final ink blend was the product of more than 10,000 hours of research and development and while the testing was performed by top engineers and scientists, there still was the hurdle of meeting international building code standards — standards that until recently were not up to date on the latest technology that Black Buffalo 3D was ready to bring to market.
“There’s only one standard for 3D printed walls in the world by the International Code Council: the AC509. It was written to go only up to 8 ft. tall, which we thought severely limits what you can do with this tech. So, we spent a year and rewrote that code, so it goes up multi stories. We are on the cusp of official approval,” Cooperman says.
Although Black Buffalo 3D’s products are currently manufactured in South Korea, the company is preparing to bring its operations to the U.S. with the recent acquisition of land that previously housed a regional airport in East Stroudsburg, Pa., to serve as its home base and center for assembly, manufacturing and training.
Through his experience in equipment financing and attendance of The ARA Show™, Murphy recognizes the appeal of the equipment rental market for Black Buffalo’s printing apparatus and explains how the company is marketing its services to potential clients in that channel.
“The rental part makes a lot of sense,” he says. “About 93 percent of construction companies rent equipment. We use that stat to show [construction] people out there that we have what you are used to doing already in this industry. We go state by state, looking through different housing associations and construction firms, reaching out to them to offer learning opportunities to find out more about this new technology they could utilize and how they can save more money, build faster and build better.”
Cooperman and Murphy say developers, contractors, builders, higher education and governmental agencies all are reaching out to Black Buffalo 3D, impressed by what they see in the company’s work.
“We reached 83,000 lbs. of pressure to break one of our walls, where standard concrete is maybe 5,000 psi,” Cooperman says of a recent test of Black Buffalo’s ink compound. “You want to make sure that if you print a wall that’s 10 ft. tall, it’s still 10 ft. tall 28 days later. It’s difficult to get that down, and our team did an awesome job getting it.”
Cooperman adds that following a demonstration at a builder’s convention in early 2022, Black Buffalo 3D was invited by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to show off its capabilities at an event on the National Mall.
Coming soon for Black Buffalo 3D is the start of project in Virginia to print more than 200 homes for their client, Alquist 3D, that Cooperman and Murphy say will be the world’s largest 3D printed home project. With buzz like this, the pair say the company’s biggest challenge is keeping up with demand.
“There is so much demand right now,” Cooperman says. “Supply chain issues are part of the reason why this technology is so popular. The cost of lumber, nails, supplies, finishing for siding and different materials shot up like crazy over the past couple of years. Our printer replaces framing and walls, inner and outer. Now you can basically just bring a 3D printer and ready-mix on site.”
The Black Buffalo 3D team says that in the current environment, they can’t make their printers fast enough to meet demand and that is one reason why they are working to support the industry — even if it helps advance the potential of competitors.
Murphy likens Black Buffalo’s core mission to a four-legged stool, with its equipment, ink, training and financing/rental program as the main components. He also says there is one other priority that should be considered a fifth leg: sustainability.
“That’s a huge one,” he says. “Our printers naturally use less product. We only print what we need. We use one to two full garbage cans of wasted concrete, maximum, per build, whereas a stick-built structure creates 1-2 tons of waste. In the ink itself, we have different fibers and polymers to reduce our concrete footprint, and we are going to extend that further with things like hempcrete and other biomass particles to make it even better for the environment. The compression strength in our concrete doesn’t just account for how hard it is, but also for how long it’s going to last. It is a more permanent-based structure, which helps sustainability. We are at a point in time where a massive amount of construction is going to happen and as we make the economics of it work, we are going to drive a massive change in the total sustainability factor of the entire industry.”
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