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by Michelle Starr
A Chinese company has successfully 3D printed a five-storey apartment building and a 1,100 square metre villa from a special print material. While architectural firms compete with their designs for 3D-printed dwellings, one company in China has quietly been setting about getting the job done. In March of last year, company WinSun claimed to have printed 10 houses in 24 hours, using a proprietary 3D printer that uses a mixture of ground construction and industrial waste, such as glass and tailings, around a base of quick-drying cement mixed with a special hardening agent.
Now, WinSun has further demonstrated the efficacy of its technology — with a five-storey apartment building and a 1,100 square metre (11,840 square foot) villa, complete with decorative elements inside and out, on display at Suzhou Industrial Park. The 3D printer array, developed by Ma Yihe, who has been inventing 3D printers for over a decade, stands 6.6 metres high, 10 metres wide and 40 metres long (20 by 33 by 132 feet). This fabricates the parts in large pieces at WinSun’s facility. The structures are then assembled on-site, complete with steel reinforcements and insulation in order to comply with official building standards. Although the company hasn’t revealed how large it can print pieces, based on photographs on its website, they are quite sizeable. A CAD design is used as a template, and the computer uses this to control the extruder arm to lay down the material “much like how a baker might ice a cake,” WinSun said. The walls are printed hollow, with a zig-zagging pattern inside to provide reinforcement. This also leaves space for insulation. This process saves between 30 and 60 percent of construction waste, and can decrease production times by between 50 and 70 percent, and labour costs by between 50 and 80 percent. In all, the villa costs around $161,000 to build. And, using recycled materials in this way, the buildings decrease the need for quarried stone and other materials resulting in a construction method that is both environmentally forward and cost effective. In time, the company hopes to use its technology on much larger scale constructions, such as bridges and even skyscrapers.
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When I asked to interview Gaël Langevin, he described himself as “pretty much like a bear in a cave”, someone who would prefer to tinker around in his workshop rather than socialize. Gaël, however, has built something that not many amatuer tinkerers have. Without any robotics experience, he has put together a free, fully functional, open source, 3D-printed robot. You can actually download most of the parts to construct this robot yourself off of Gaël’s website, InMoov.blogspot.com.
By the time I had come across his blog detailing the building process, he was already making the head and it was exactly like something out of a movie adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel, this extremely realistic, human face in translucent white plastic – something to make you question what it means to be human. The whole project had gone from a simple hand replica to a torso, arms, and head in a matter of eight months. Gaël had been consulted to make a modern-looking prosthetic hand for a commercial photo shoot. Because he recently acquired a Touch FDM 3D Printer from Bits from Bytes, he thought he’d try to see how realistic a hand his new 3D printer could create. The film shoot job was eventually cancelled, but Gaël was still left with the idea of printing the limb. After successfully accomplishing the task, he decided to incorporate servos and an Arduino to yield a programmable, electronic hand. The product was a resounding success. He could press keys on a keyboard to cause the individual fingers to move at varying speeds. Though the commercial job didn’t pan out, he posted his product to Thingverse and was amazed at the encouraging responses. Thingverse users loved the limb he had created, started printing and building their own versions, and wanted to see more. So Gaël built more.
Even as a child growing up in France, Gaël was handy. “My parents always let me use any tools I wanted, even electrical ones. It was the 70’s and they were cool and very handy themselves.” As is the case with many precocious youths, Gaël had a difficult time learning the prescribed course material in school, saying that “teachers always bored me; it is like they never had the subject I was interested in.” His parents helped him enter art school when he was 15, where he was able to excel in sculpting. And, today, Gaël runs his sculpting and model-making business, Factices, in Paris.
Luckily for the self-described autodidact, the Internet is proving to be a powerful tool for those who are uninterested in the education provided by mainstream sources. With Blender (the free, open source 3D modelling software), for instance, there are a multitude of tutorials that can lead users step-by-step through the model building process. And, with the vast supply of tutorials on any given subject throughout the Internet, Gaël explains, “You can go to the essential on what you want to learn, but you also get extra info about things you wouldn’t have searched for. I’ve been fooling with Blender for two years, now, and discover new stuff all the time.”
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Handlebars is a framework that lets you build semantic templates quickly and easily, using modified HTML code. It’s compatible with the earlier Mustache framework; a Mustache template can be imported into Handlebars, which will let you use the extra features of the new version. Handlebars templates can be compiled in the browser, but it’s possible to reduce runtime libraries and save resources by precompiling. This makes a real difference with code that will be run on mobile devices.
Node.js is great for building scalable web apps that use efficient concurrency. It’s similar to frameworks like Event Machine or Twisted, and lets you add multiple network connections with only a small heap allocation instead of relying on much less efficient OS threading. It’s also highly resistant to locking thanks to an almost complete lack of I/O processes – in fact it never blocks. This makes it ideal for creating risk-free high speed applications.
Temporary staff has been a feature of business for years. Traditionally they have been used to cover for absences or meet seasonal demand. Increasingly, though, temporary employees are brought in for their specialist talents, and the IT sector is one of the areas most affected by this. As information technology takes on more importance to every business the reasons for using contract staff are changing. The availability of key skills means it’s no longer just a convenient solution to short-term problems; it’s becoming a vital element of staying ahead.
The global economy has been in recession for nearly five years now, but things are slowly starting to improve. As growth and spending pick up, many businesses are seeing their order books grow again. That’s always good news, but the economies that have had to be made since 2008 mean that existing staffing levels can have trouble keeping up. Obviously more staff is needed, but the question is how to add them. With recovery still weak and uncertain, employers are understandably cautious about adding to the payroll, but at the same time being short handed mean not being able to take advantage of opportunities.
In many fields, including finance and accounting as well as IT, hiring managers believe there is a shortage of qualified professionals. Industry analysts like BusinessWire reported that 56 percent of IT professionals believe that there is a current shortage of qualified staff in their own field, and even more (69 percent) think the industry will always be under-recruited. When demand beats supply wages go up, and the economy isn’t ready for that yet. Skill shortages mean it also takes longer to fill positions, as competition for available candidates is more intense. With skilled professionals scarce and expensive, where can a company get the expertise it needs?
Recent trends in hiring could point the way. Employers are switching on to the advantages of contract staff. Temp hires during 2013 are expected to be 6 percent higher than last year according to Staffing Industry Analysts, with many sectors well above that; for IT the prediction is a 16% increase. Hirings of contract staff for the year to date are closely tracking the numbers for 2007 according to the ASA Staffing Index, and if that trend keeps up the predictions could even be beaten.
Years ago many employees expected to spend their entire career with one company, earning promotions and moving up the structure. That’s no longer the reality for many, however, and research suggests that it’s seen as less desirable both by staff and employers. Up to a third of the U.S. workforce are now on temporary or fixed-term contracts, according to the Bureau of Labor, and employees in search of a promotion are now more likely to seek it by moving to a new firm. A ‘job for life’ is now often seen as reducing career opportunities instead of enhancing them, meaning that many of the most motivated and flexible employees see contract work as a more appealing option.
Trends in contract staffing are affected by growth and downturns like anything else, but whether the economy contracts or expands it will remain an attractive model for many. Whatever happens with the economy in the next couple of years temporary employees are going to be a valuable asset in meeting the challenges.