Up late one night, unable to sleep, Platt Boyd picked up a pen and began to doodle.
But the pen he had in hand was a device called a 3Doodler, an instrument meant for creating free-form, 3D-printed objects.
It's a neat little gadget that uses thin strands of plastic that it heats and extrudes. The plastic hardens almost instantly, so you can put a dot on a sheet of paper, then draw up from it, or at an oblique angle, any which way that captures your fancy. Relatively new on the market, it has found favour among architects and industrial designers, as well as gadget happy hobbyists.
But Boyd's doodle was a three-dimensional matrix. Then he piled some books on top, and was amazed by how strong the matrix was.
"Something that weighed half an ounce supported 18 pounds of books," he says.
It was at that point that he realized he was onto something. Now, about 20 months later, he's the founder and CEO of Branch Technology, based in Chattanooga, Tenn. and he thinks the company can use 3D matrices to change the future of building construction.
I know. We've all heard too many claims that Product X will "change forever the way you do business." Or it will "move innovation to a new level," or some similar claims. You take them with a grain of salt because hype is a large part of what start-ups do: They hype their product to attract investors.
But once in a while, one comes along with claims that make you blink, then stop and think that, well, perhaps, maybe...
Boyd is an architect, who for 15 years worked with a firm that did architectural work mostly for universities, the U.S. defence department, and the occasional homebuilder. But he left the firm to found Branch Technology, a four-man start-up that has raised a bit more than $900,000 is seed money, some of it from Boyd's own savings. Now he's looking for another $1.5 million in funding.
Branch Technology calls its system cellular fabrication. Conventional 3D printing uses thermoplastics that are heated, then cooled and layered to create a structure. Branch, instead, uses a free-form 3D printer that solidifies materials in open space. That building material is a mixture of ABS plastic and carbon fibres.
The printer's head is attached to a robotic arm about 3.6 metres long. The arm travels on a 10-metre rail. At full extension the printer is able to produce a matrix about 7.6 by 17.5 metres. Those matrices form the internal support for a structure. It can be covered with layers of foam insulation, or concrete or just about any other conventional materials.
In an interview with Fortune Magazine, Boyd said that "we have an algorithm that can generate geometry and robotic code to create this matrix."
"That open matrix is very lightweight. We fit them together like big Lego blocks on site (and) then you apply construction materials on site to become a wall assembly...If someone sends us a file — a CAD file — then we can produce that wall."
Boyd says that a 3D matrix covered with spray foam and weighing just over a kilo can support about 1.3 tonnes.
But the biggest selling point the system has, he says, is that it can reduce construction costs to anywhere between US$720/m2 and US$1,260/m2.
Modern buildings are systems that come together to form a composite assembly, Boyd says. And, he asks, "how little can we 3D print and allow other materials to become the strength of the wall assembly?"
Branch Technology's website likens the firm's system to the way nature builds.
"Like bones in our body or trees in the forest, optimized geometries are made strong and functional by the material filling the matrix."
Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.