Can 3D printing reinvent the construction industry?

In December 2019, 3D printing company Apis Cor announced that it had completed the world’s largest individual 3D printed building. The office block, built in Dubai, is 9.5 metres in height with a floor area of 640 square metres. Another impressive 3D printed building in Dubai, the ‘office of the future’, is a unique pavilion that acts as a temporary home for the Dubai Future Foundation as well as an exhibition space and incubator for future emerging technologies in Dubai. A large-scale 3D printer was used to assemble the building in layers of reinforced concrete, with a computer-controlled armature aiding the printing process. There is now solid and credible evidence that using 3D printing technologies within the construction industry can not only lead to unique buildings but can also reap a host of benefits throughout the entire construction process.

3D printing’s roots date back to the mid-1980s when stereolithography (SLA) was conceived. SLA works as a high-powered laser and turns a liquid resin into a solid material. SLA is an additive technology, which means it involves creating a product ‘from the ground up’ in a layer-by-layer fashion, and it remains one of the most popular 3D printing technologies.

3D printing was initially used by construction companies to quickly and accurately create prototype parts. However, the printing method eventually came into use for more ambitious initiatives. In 2004, a University of South Carolina (USC) professor attempted to 3D print a wall in what is widely accepted as the technology’s first entry into construction. Today, the 3D printing construction market is growing at a fast pace, with a recent study, carried out by Transparency Market Research, estimating that 3D printing in the construction industry is expanding at a compound annual growth rate of 33%. Indeed, the industry is expected to reach 1.5 billion USD by 2024.

While 3D printing’s emergence in the construction industry is ongoing, certain building aspects are poised for more growth than others; concrete for instance. According to Research and Markets, the world’s largest market research outlet, the concrete 3D printing market is projected to be valued at 56.4 million USD by the end of 2021. Many new projects are making use of ‘printing’ in concrete and this is not just a grassroots movement. In February 2017, Vinci, one of France’s leading construction firms, purchased a stake in Xtree, a French start-up company that specializes in 3D printing concrete structural elements. With Vinci having the resources to scale up Xtree’s business, this open the door to wider adoption within the industry.

Although many 3D printing technologies are still in their infancy, particularly when it comes to concrete, proponents of 3D printing in the construction industry have observed several benefits, one of these being the speed at which a project can be completed. A 3D printer can operate non-stop until a task has been completed, and thus buildings can be constructed in a matter of days. It is estimated that companies can spare roughly 60% of the time usually spent on site when a 3D printer is used, according to Marco Vonk, Marketing Manager at Saint-Gobain Weber Beamix.

A company already demonstrating clear results from exploiting the aforementioned benefit is Shanghai based firm Winsun Decoration Design Engineering. The firm has used large 3D printers to spray a mixture of quick-drying cement and recycled raw materials. This has enabled them to construct 10 small ‘demonstration houses’ in less than 24 hours, with individual blocks being fabricated offsite and then assembled onsite. A more distinctive benefit of integrating 3D printing technologies into construction projects is the opportunity for unique and complex building designs. By virtue of the way a 3D printer operates, assembling structures ‘layer-by-layer’, structures can take a variety of unique and unorthodox configurations that would otherwise be very difficult to construct with current techniques.

Despite these benefits, the industry still faces a variety of challenges if it wishes to incorporate 3D printing into operations. One such detriment of the 3D printer is that it is limited to working with essentially just concrete and plastic. As such, buildings requiring, for example, wood or steel components would not be able to be constructed solely through the use of a 3D printer. Moreover, with the printing process being almost entirely automated with very little human assistance required, there is potential to drastically reduce the number of low-skill manufacturing jobs available. This has the potential to be problematic for countries with lower GDP figures, whose economies rely on such jobs being available, as opposed to products being printed quickly and cost-effectively abroad.

In conclusion, it is difficult to determine to what extent these technologies will end up being used onsite, or if they will remain largely a tool for pre-fabrication. However, for the right kind of project –where weather conditions are stable and quality can be monitored – it seems reasonable that 3D printing technologies will join the arsenal of tools available to construction companies.

By Daniel Gaskin

Sector Head: Theo Thomas