Tablet-operated Robotic Printer Delivers New Model for Fast, Affordable Housing

The pandemic crisis has heightened the need for housing and shelter projects to move as quickly as possible to completion. Using 3D printing robotics and modeling software, ICON modified the traditional approach to construction and is building micro-homes for less than $4,000 each.  


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Image credit: ICON

Increasing population density and the rising cost of housing in urban cores has led to community displacement, causing the homeless population to rise across the country and abroad. A key tenet of urban planning best practices, housing first, is gaining traction among city leaders. Housing first proposes that a community should first receive access to housing before addressing additional barriers to economic freedom.

In Austin, TX, city planners are doing just that with the help of supersize 3D printing robotics. In 2019, Community First invested $18 million into an Austin tiny home community. The goal was to welcome 180 chronically homeless residents who would pay $300 rent and gain access to job opportunities within their community.

To make this initiative a reality, Austin-based integrator ICON agreed to use and expand its prototype tiny home design, which contained 350 square feet of living space and could be printed in an astonishingly quick 48 hours. ICON partnered with Mobile Loaves & Fishes (MLF), the Austin non-profit known for its service to the area’s homeless community. With one of ICON’s Vulcan II printers, a nearly 500-square-foot Welcome Center building was printed in less than 27 hours, launching Phase II of MLF’s Community First! Village.

Building Continues on Phase II During Pandemic

The global coronavirus pandemic crisis has now heightened the need for the construction  to move as quickly as possible. The organizations involved wanted to lift the homeless community off the streets and into permanent homes at Community First! Village, where they will have shelter. The homes will give community dwellers the ability to maintain social distancing recommendations and potentially be safer from coronavirus infection. 

ICON wasn’t sure however if it could continue construction on the project. At the end of March, the construction team closely reviewed the Guidance for Construction Industry related to the City of Austin’s Stay Home-Work Safe Order. They determined that construction on Phase II of Community First! Village can continue. The two specific exceptions to the Safe Order include:

  • Construction of facilities for individuals experiencing homelessness;
  • Construction of facilities that provide social services.

Community First! Village Phase II is considered Critical Infrastructure as defined in the order. Based on this, the ICON team is continuing to move forward with all construction on Phase II. 

The Robotic Construction Crew

ICON’s mission strategically addresses the intersection of technology, urban planning, and social good. It aims to “re-imagine the approach to homebuilding and construction and make affordable, dignified housing available to everyone throughout the world.” The company estimates that more than 1 billion people globally don’t have adequate shelter.

Since the initial prototype house, ICON has further developed its Vulcan II printer solely for the purpose of printing and building affordable housing. The company is focusing its efforts in Austin but is also looking outside the U.S. border, recently launching a new housing project in Mexico that will include 50 homes constructed with its 3D printer technology. 

Data-driven Performance via Control Sensors

According to ICON, the Vulcan II printer is designed to create resilient single-story buildings faster, more affordably, and with more design freedom. The printer has an adjustable width for different sizes of slabs. It uses tablet-based controls and LED lighting for low to no-light construction conditions. Once the printer and robotics begin the process, the houses require no additional on-site assembly by local crews. 

Vulcan II software relies on data-driven performance metrics, using dynamic motion, environmental, and control sensors to enable the printing. The software captures real-time data down to the millisecond, enabling machine learning and predictive analytics, so its printers can get smarter over time.

The Vulcan II is environmentally sustainable during operation:

  • All components are IP66 and can function in all weather and climates.
  • It operates with low water usage, with a rate of two gallons per minute.
  • The printer is powered at 16kwh, which is a lower amount of power used than that of the average 3D printer.

Most significantly, the Vulcan II has proven to be a cost-efficient model for new construction. ICON notes that the Vulcan II can cut the cost of building a home by 30 to 50 percent, compared to the cost of traditional construction.

Pouring concrete for 3D printed homes

Image credit: ICON


ICON plans to incorporate Lavacrete II as a primary building material in future home construction. The advanced material would make the homes more environmentally resilient, while allowing production teams to lower the amount of construction waste. Lavacrete has a compressive strength of 6,000 psi, which is well above the strength of existing building materials.


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