Anyone that grew up watching Star Trek remembers a lot of the amazing technology that science fiction television show imagined, such as the holodeck or the transporter. There was one in particular that, despite the fact that no one in the Star Trek universe treated it as especially important, had huge implications; the replicator.

The replicator in Star Trek was able to instantly synthesize anything, whether it was a cup of earl grey tea, components for an engine repair, or replacement tools. While that seems like science fiction, there’s some reasonable science behind the theory! In 1984, we had our first successful attempt at it, though we now call it “3D Printing” since the process is far from instant.

In the decades since, we’ve advanced to the point where it’s not just plastic we can 3D print, but raw ingredients for food as well. We aren’t just printing basic shapes for architectural models, but sophisticated shapes such as those required by firearms. However, there’s another application for 3D printing, one much bigger. One that involves the construction industry.

It Can Go Big

Like everything about digital technology, 3D printing started small and was limited but it eventually got faster and more powerful. Technology has grown leaps and bounds over the years. What was once clunky technology that couldn’t even balance is checkbook is now a sophisticated mobile technology that can act as a reliable employee time clock app on phones. In the same way, what started as a small scale machine only suitable for prototyping has scaled up.

3D printers—if they can even still be called that—are now capable of creating buildings. This isn’t just a hypothesis either; this has already been done in countries like China. One test-run of a 3D printer for the Chinese company Winsun created 10 small houses in 24 hours, at the cost of only $50,000. That’s incredible, but how does it work?

It’s All About Layers

Whether it’s a small, retail 3D printer, or one of the larger “super printers” that creates buildings, the basic process it the same. A 3D printer creates a thin layer and then drops another layer on top of that. If you imagine stacking sheets of paper until they are as tall as you, that’s how 3D printers essentially work. Smaller printers work with photopolymer, a type of liquid plastic, or even with raw food ingredients, but when it comes to buildings, the “super printers” often work with concrete.

This process, now perfected into a technique known as “contour crafting” is a very unusual way to build. Obviously, the super printers that create structures must, by design, be bigger than what they are building. However, because of the layered technique used, this also means that structures can be designed to be self-supporting, and even hollow since they are being created as a single piece, and not assembled from components.

The Future Of Construction

So what does this mean for construction? There will always be a need for people in the industry, so experienced construction workers will still be required. However, depending on the situation, and the environmental conditions, super printers might be just what is required for certain projects.

If a beautiful design isn’t a requirement, for example, super printers can be an excellent emergency shelter system, quickly constructing a place for disaster relief victims to stay when they’ve been flooded or burned out of their homes. Or in places where it may be too expensive—and dangerous—to send a huge army of construction workers, like space, a super printer putting together an orbital structure might be the best way to advance our migration to the stars.