3D Printing and the Construction Industry: Uses, Scope and Benefits

3D Printing and the Construction Industry: Uses, Scope and Benefits

3D printing has become a popular term over the last decade. It was initially developed for producing prototypes, the technology has advanced to the point where it is now embedded into various industries such as medicine, tool-making and aerospace. But does 3D printing have a long-term scope in the construction industry? Let’s find out.

A Brief History of 3D Printers

The origin of 3D printing technology can be traced back to the 1980s, when stereolithography (SLA) was conceived. SLA created a product layer-by-layer from the ground up by using a high powered laser to convert a liquid resin into a solid material. However, it was a difficult and expensive operation, so it had few uses back then.

It was in the 2000s that 3D printing became an affordable technology. Though initially used for creating prototype parts, its uses increased as additive processes improved. It was used in product design, tool manufacture, consumer electronics, plastics and dental and medical applications.

How do 3D Printers Work?

A 3D model of the item is created using computer-aided design (CAD). The printer then reads the design and uses the printing medium, which can be a liquid, sheet material or powder, to lay down successive layers that fuse together to form the item.

The process is slow but it can create almost any shape. Multiple components can be produced simultaneously using multiple colours and materials, depending on the printing technique used. Some materials, such as metal, can be more expensive to print, in which case it is more cost-effective to print a mould and then use that to create the item.

3D Printers in the Construction Industry

Tecla: a clay 3D printed house in Italy
Tecla: a clay 3D printed house in Italy

Before the adoption of building information modeling, 3D printing was being used by architectural firms to build scale models. However, the technology’s first step into the construction sector came in 2004, when Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis of the University of South Carolina developed an FDM 3D printer, which is mounted on a robotic arm and creates using concrete instead of plastic, and attempted to 3D print a wall.

The confirmation that 3D printers can build walls and process cement has opened up a number of doors for the technology’s implementation in the construction industry. 3D printing can be used to create construction components or even to print entire buildings. Since the mid-2000s, 3D printing has been used in a number of innovative, construction based initiatives, such as:

  • In 2014, an international team of partners collaborated for a three-year ‘research and design by doing’ project to 3D print a full-size canal house in Amsterdam. 
  • In 2016, Beijing architecture firm HuaShang Tengda printed a 4,300 square foot home in 45 days. Tha villa’s thick walls were made out of concrete and are strong enough to sustain an earthquake of magnitude eight. 
  • In 2016, the Dubai Future Foundation built its Office of the Future using 3D printing technology. The 2,700 square foot building was built in only 17 days using a large 3D printer that measured 120x40x20 feet. 
  • In 2016, Dutch studio DUS Architects 3D printed an eight square metre cabin and a bathtub in Amsterdam. The 3D Print Urban Cabin, which can be rented for a short stay, was printed using sustainable bioplastic. It meant to show how additive manufacturing can offer solutions for disaster relief and temporary housing.  
  • In 2019, BAM opened Europe’s first concrete printing centre in the Netherlands. The factory has been tasked to deliver a number of 3D printed bridged in the region.
  • A single-storey, boulder-shaped concrete house located in the suburbs of Eindhoven in the Netherlands has become the first 3D printed house in Europe where people actually live. The tenants received the key to this home in April this year. 
  • Mario Cucinella Architects and 3D printing specialists WASP collaborated to print a low-carbon housing prototype in Massa Lombarda, Italy. The house consists of two connected dome-shaped volumes made of 350 stacked layers of 3D printed clay that was sourced from a nearby riverbed. The house has been named Tecla, a combination of the words ‘technology’ and ‘clay’. 
  • In December 2019, 3D printing robot firm Apis Cor completed printing Dubai Municipality Office Building in UAE. The printer moved around the open-air site by a crane as it printed the structure, which is 9.5 metres in height and covers an area of 640 square meters, making it the world’s largest individual 3D printed building. 

Spurred on by more innovative and radical construction projects being planned, the concrete 3D printing market was expected to be valued at $56.4, whereas the overall 3D printing construction market is rapidly growing and is expected to reach $1.5 billion by 2024. 

Benefits of 3D Printing in Construction

Dubai Municipality Office Building, UAE
Dubai Municipality Office Building, UAE

The construction industry often faces pressure to meet tight schedules and budgets, as well as come up with creative and innovative solutions. 3D printing in construction offers a significant potential to increase efficiency. 

  • Fast production
    3D printing in the construction industry will greatly reduce production time. A building can be built from the ground up in a matter of days using a 3D printer – a much faster way than the conventional method, which can take months or years. Marco Vonk, Marketing Manager at Saint-Gobain Weber Beamix, has said that 3D printers in the construction sector can “save about 60% of the time on the jobsite and 80% in labour”.

  • Less chance of human error
    3D printers are fully automated, so their operation eliminates human error. The printers require no manual input, but simply need to be monitored. This automated process reduced the chances of worker injuries and fatalities. In addition to that, since there is no need for additional tooling, there will be no need for different materials and support. 
  • Freedom to try out innovative designs
    3D technologies can improve the project planning stage tremendously. Computer-aided design plans of the buildings and 3D printed models can be used to ensure that the clients are satisfied with the direction of the project.
    Because of this technology, architects are able to design complex designs that would otherwise be unattainable or too labour-intensive to create using conventional construction means. 3D concrete printing allows for any shape or angle to be printed, which will allow for a lot more creativity in the design and construction sector. 
  • Waste reduction
    The construction waste produced globally currently totals more than one billion tons every year, and that number is expected to double by 2025. Technologies such as 3D printing can help save a lot of production costs on material waste. This is because a 3D printer uses exactly the amount of material it requires to print a structure using additive layers. Not only that, but 3D printers can also use recycled materials – which in turn helps the environment greatly. 

Though 3D printing has great potential to change the construction industry, the technology is still in its infancy – especially in Pakistan, where the import of 3D printers was banned in 2016 due to potential threats to national security as these printers could be used to print weapons. However, as the world moves forward, the country should look to reconsider this ban so that the country’s rapidly growing construction industry can benefit from the 3D printing technology at least in the design phase initially, if not the building phase.

3D Printing and the Construction Industry

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