There’s been a huge shift in architecture and construction.
When 3D printing first became available, architects saw the potential. They needed a cheaper, faster way to develop models of the homes and other buildings they were designing. The 3D printing industry delivered.
Printing the models, though, was not enough. We wanted to see if it was possible to print entire full-scale structures. After all, the construction industry hasn’t changed much in the past few decades – structures are getting bigger, but they’re not necessarily getting better.
And for good reason. No one wants their house to collapse in the middle of the night because the long-term durability of the house’s materials and structure were never tested.
But 3D printing buildings has been embraced openly by some, such as governments in Singapore and Dubai. Singapore just got started on their plans to build housing a year ago, but the world’s first 3D printed office building (where even the interior décor was 3D printed) in Dubai has been completed.
There are those in the construction industry who are optimistic 3D printing will one day see mainstream use. Building Radar says, “3D printing is not likely to bring about immediate radical change throughout the industry, but rather experience slow and incremental incorporation.”
Benefits of 3D Printing in Construction
Many involved in the development of these new 3D printing and construction technologies are excited by the benefits they make possible:
- Reducing time to construct new buildings – this Chinese company claims to have printed ten small houses in 24 hours
- Decreasing the costs associated with construction through the invention of less expensive materials and use of fewer laborers
- Allowing us to create materials out of local soils or locally sourced cement mixtures
- Permitting architects to utilize curved, yet hollow designs for stronger, lighter structures
- Building affordable housing for impoverished regions
- Allowing more customization in building without the custom price tag
Problems Faced by the Construction Industry
Like all other industries looking to scale their use of 3D printing, the construction industry is facing a few obstacles.
- Several companies have developed 3D printers capable of producing buildings or 3D printed parts for buildings, but none of these printers are available to construction companies for purchase
- “3D printing is not going to solve the construction industry’s skilled worker shortage, recruit up and coming talent, or remove human error in planning construction projects,” website The Balance points out
- Depending on the exact concrete mix being used, buildings may still require support structures (however, many of the concrete mixtures used now are thicker than standard concrete mixes and so are self-supporting)
- Not all building technologies have been tested for safety and strength against hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.
- Wiring, plumbing, and other conduits must be installed traditionally
Current 3D Printing Construction Technology
Singapore, China, and Dubai are not the only places to have seen 3D printing technology in use. These are a few other intriguing uses of 3D printing we’ve found:
- A Dutch company named Pixelstone has developed a way to 3D print small (very small) bricks into building facades
- Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis of the University of Southern California runs Contour Crafting with the goal of creating a construction method that 3D prints the entire house, including utility pipes and wiring
- The PolyBrick is a ceramic wall-building material that replaces brick and doesn’t require mortar
You can find more examples of how 3D printing has been used in construction, along with the technologies used to create these structures, in these articles written by 3D Printing Industry and 3ders.org.
The Printers Used
Several 3D printers have been developed specifically for printing buildings. Some (very large) printers allow for printing onsite, while others print the parts in a factory. After manufacture, the parts are shipped to the site and assembled.
Even among these printers there are differences. Some printers look like those we expect to see in a factory (just on a much more massive scale) while others have extruder heads affixed to robotic arms.
Cement is by far the most popular material used for 3D printing in the construction industry. But it’s not the only material. We’ve also seen:
- Plastics (including new bioplastics)
Lessening the Impact of Construction on the Environment
In addition to the benefits in terms of building efficiency, 3D printing has the potential to aid construction companies in reducing their environmental impact. Researchers are working on projects that:
- Turn carbon dioxide into a concrete to be used as a construction material
- Reduce the need for air conditioning through water-filled, porous bricks that cool air as it moves through them
Slow and Steady, But Moving Forward
It may take some time for the construction industry to accept the changes brought by 3D printing, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t coming. We probably can’t even imagine what builders will come up with as machines and materials develop.