A few years ago, we began looking into the new phenomenon called 3D printing and its future implications for the construction industry. At the time we wrote an article called, Could 3D Printing Revolutionize the Construction Industry? Well, that was then and this is now. And if you haven’t been paying attention, the answer is a resounding “yes!”
Back then, 3D printing was in its infancy, and some early adoption industries like medical device and aerospace were taking the lead, focusing on very small devices. We called it “experimental,” at the time, with its roots in European visionaries. Since then, many manufacturers have turned to 3D printing. And now the worldwide construction industry is embracing the technology. It’s being used in building design and construction, and whether you’re embracing it not, everyone in the construction industry should know more about 3D printing 2.0.
Why 3D Printing Anyway?
No doubt, 3D printing is a very cool technology – and there are many cool technologies being developed every day. But why is the construction industry embracing it? Several reasons are at the top of the list in what is now called digital engineering:
3D is faster: The whole design-build and project planning cycle is greatly reduced using 3D printing. Previously, models and prototypes, such as roof connectivity systems, were laboriously developed and manufactured. 3D printing has dramatically reduced the time from design to installation by taking parts and materials from lab to building site.
3D is greener: With new materials designed and printed via 3D printers, the amount of lumber used in home construction can be significantly reduced, saving trees and preserving the natural landscape. In fact, regardless of the materials used, 3D printing, guided by computer-based models, is inherently more efficient.
3D is more economical: Time is money; so are materials. As with most automated processes, less human intervention means greater accuracy and less waste. Yes, 3D printing may mean fewer manual jobs, but vocational training will begin to refocus on a whole new set of skills.
3D is scalable and repeatable: While many agree that it is unlikely that conventional building processes and materials will be replaced by 3D, the most likely application is in the manufacturer/printing of parts and building components. This includes small electric sockets or girder brackets, which can be reproduced with the push of a button. And, as indicated above, the idea of printing on-demand means less inventory and more economical production. Scalability also means taking these mobile printers onsite and using them in real-time wherever they are needed.
How Is the Construction Industry Using 3D Printing Today?
As we’ve said, 3D printing has come a long way since we reported on it three years ago. Following are just a few examples of some real-life applications:
- Chinese builder, Hushang Tengda, printed a full-size, earthquake-proof house in Beijing in just 45 days. Normal construction, with traditional building techniques would have taken more than three months.
- Spanish construction company Minibuilders used “an army” of robotic 3D printers to construct the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia in Spain. Using several smaller printers on-site divided labor and saved time by working ‘round the clock.
- French company, Innoprint, provided substantial emergency shelters, which could be built on-site in about 30 minutes. These are the basis for eliminating “tent cities” worldwide.
Finally…Made In America!
Admittedly, most of the design build firms using the full potential of 3D printing are Asian and European. This is not unexpected, as these areas have long been known for innovation. But American ingenuity is finally stepping up. San Francisco based non-profit, New Story, has teamed up with 3D printing innovator, Icon, to build low-cost homes in South America. This is real and it’s happening now with the utilization of a massive, mobile, onsite concrete-fueled printer called Vulcan. Models – built in just 48 hours – have been completed and will soon be starting communities of homes that eventually cost only $4,000 dollars to build!
Why South America? There’s an immediate and ongoing need for inexpensive housing in areas devastated by natural disasters. What’s more, the strong regulatory environment in the United States will need revisiting to accommodate new construction processes and materials.
The Future Is (Almost) Now
Yes, large-scale 3D printing in the construction industry has a way to go. But the technology is here. Actual components and structures are being built, and with the U.S. entering the market, it’s only a matter of time before 3D printing becomes an integral part of the American construction industry.