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#3Dstartup: ICON re-imagines the approach to construction

Published on January 12, 2021 by Carlota V.
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If you follow developments in the 3D printing construction sector, you will have noticed the accelerated growth it has undergone in recent months. With an ever-increasing demand for a new way to deliver more resilient homes at speed, the future looks bright for this industry. One important player in this sector is ICON, based in the U.S. The company develops construction technologies using 3D printing, software and advanced materials to advance the state of construction on Earth and in Space. In order to learn more about the company’s ambitions and current projects, as well as the benefits of additive manufacturing technologies, we got in touch with Alex Le Roux, CTO and Co-Founder of the company.

3DN: Can you introduce yourself and your relationship with 3D printing?

My name is Alex Le Roux, co-founder and CTO of ICON. Together with Evan Loomis and Jason Ballard, we founded ICON in 2017. I got my start with 3D printing in college and founded my first company focused on large scale additive manufacturing. I was captivated by the problem of getting a giant robot to 3D print an entire house. A tall order and a challenge, but one worth pursuing.

Alex Le Roux

We founded ICON to develop advanced construction technologies that advance humanity by using 3D printing robotics, software and advanced materials. In March 2018, ICON printed the first permitted, 3D printed home in Austin, TX alongside the housing nonprofit, New Story. Since then, we have 3D printed nearly 20 homes around the world with dozens more on the way.

3DN: How did you come up with the idea of founding ICON?

In 2014, as part of a research project, I decided to learn everything there was to know about the 3D printers currently on the market. What I found is that what can be done with small-scale printers is rather limited. I hypothesized that by making printers 100 X bigger new and interesting opportunities could arise. That sent me on a multi-year mission to build my own printer and develop the basis for the Vulcan 3D printer we eventually unveiled during SXSW 2018 in Austin, TX and showcased the first permitted, 3D printed home in the U.S.

3DN: Can you tell us how the Vulcan 3D printer works?

The Vulcan is a gantry-style printer capable of printing up to 2,000 sq ft homes with a proprietary material we call Lavacrete. The print speed range is between 4 and 8 inches per second in the horizontal direction and can easily print the walls of a 500 sq ft home in 24 hours of print-time. The printer is controlled by a user-friendly smartphone app operated by a single person. The job sites typically have 3-4 team members while printing and operating our Magma delivery system.

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The Vulcan II concrete 3D printer

3DN: Can you explain your Magma material delivery system?

Magma is the machine that provides Vulcan with printable material. The machine accepts 3,000 lb bulk bags of “Lavacrete” and then mixes in a proprietary recipe of admixtures and water – all of which vary in quantity depending on the environmental conditions. The machine then communicates with Vulcan to determine exactly when the printer is in need of more material, and then accordingly feed that material with a high-powered pump.

3DN: Can you tell us more about your project with NASA? Why did ICON take up this ambitious task?

From the very founding of ICON, we’ve been thinking about off-world construction. In our early days, we participated in NASA’s 3D Printed Habitat Centennial Challenge alongside the Colorado School of Mines.

ICON took up this ambitious project with NASA, because we firmly believe that our expertise and products are well-suited for exploration of the Moon and off-world construction efforts.

Similarly, we believe that large-scale 3D printing using a regolith substrate is the ideal solution for off-world construction since the building materials do not need to be shipped to the lunar or martian surface on a rocket. This approach to construction has the opportunity to lower off-planet construction costs by many orders of magnitude – something that will need to be done if we are to build infrastructure and habitats on the lunar surface.

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ICON believes that its expertise and products are well-suited for exploration of the Moon and off-world construction efforts | Image via ICON

We also believe that space-age technologies can not only help advance humanity’s future in space, but also to solve challenges we face on Earth.

3DN: Can you describe the transition from 3D printing on Earth to on the Moon?

The Moon is an incredibly challenging place: 500 degree temp variations, craters that are thousands of feet deep, extreme radiation, electrically charged super abrasive dust — and all within the hard vacuum of space.

Transition from printing on Earth to printing on the Moon means making a number of changes to our approaches on Earth from materials used to operations. There are many differences and challenges and we’re up for them!

The print-head technology is arguably the biggest challenge to building a printer that can operate on the Moon or Mars. The print-head must reliably convert regolith in powdered form into a solid material with minimal addition of additives from Earth – while in a vacuum and without any human involvement.

3DN: Where do you see ICON in 5 years?

In five years, we hope to be scaling our solution to people all around the world: getting Vulcan printers into the hands of developers, builders and architects around the world, 3D printing more and more homes, continuing to increase the housing supply, providing architects with more design freedom, lowering construction costs and getting one step closer to the Moon.

First 3D printed permitted home by ICON | Image via ICON

3DN: Any last words for our readers?

We are hiring for a number of positions including in mechanical and software engineering, field operations and marketing. If interested in working on giant robots to print homes on Earth and in outer space, please check out career openings HERE.

What do you think of ICON? Let us know in a comment below or on our Facebook and Twitter pages! Sign up for our free weekly Newsletter, all the latest news in 3D printing straight to your inbox!

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