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3D printing in construction: what are the benefits?

At first glance, it looks like the shell of any other half-finished building. But, on closer inspection, you see there are no bricks. Instead, layers of material are pasted on top of each other to create an intricate structure. This is the futuristic world of 3D printing in construction, where robotic arms automatically squeeze layers of cement, plastic or other material onto a foundation and ‘build’ a structure.

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3D printing in construction

Right now, this approach to construction remains very niche – only a handful of 3D printed house and office prototypes exist around the world. Nevertheless, it represents an exciting and potentially profound change in how we build.

What is 3D printing in construction, where is the potential, and will you be working on 3D printed projects any time soon?

What is 3D printing in construction?

3D printing in construction can either involve the use of a 3D printer attached to an arm which actively builds a project on-site or the use of printers in a factory which create components of a building project that are assembled later.

As a concept, 3D printing is not new – it was first developed in the 1980s. However, only in the last decade has the technology improved enough (and the costs declined sufficiently) for it to become mainstream.

3D printers are not unlike your desktop inkjet printer. A software programme ‘tells’ the printer about the dimensions of the end product. The printer then injects material on a platform according to that plan. 3D printers often use liquid metals, plastics, cement and a variety of other materials which then cool or dry to form a structure.

For 3D printing in construction, a CAD or BIM programme ‘tells’ the 3D printer what it needs to print, and the machines then begin layering out levels of material according to the plan.

Learn more: 3D printing is one of a number of exciting innovations in construction to have emerged in the past decade

3D PRINTERS IN CONSTRUCTION: HOW DO THEY WORK?

The concept of 3D printer creation is the layer-by-layer extrusion of a specific mixture based on a three-dimensional computer model.

A prepared combination of cement, filler, plasticizer, and other substances is put into the device’s hopper and supplied to the print head. The mixture is sprayed on the site’s surface or previously printed layers. That is how most construction 3D printers operate. There are three sorts of devices for 3D printing among them:

  • Gantry 3D printers. Made up of a frame, three gantries, and a print head. With its help, buildings can be printed in sections or in their whole.

Gantry 3D printers

  • Delta printers. Not limited by three-dimensional model, and can produce more complicated forms. The print head is hung at levers attached to vertical guides.

Delta printers

  • Finally, a robotic printer features a robot or a network of robots, such as an industrial manipulator outfitted with extruders and controlled by a computer.

robotic printer

Three innovative examples

So far, only a handful of 3D printed projects completed in the construction sector. Here are three of the most promising examples:

  1. Dubai municipality office building, UAE

Dubai municipality office building

In December 2019, 3D printing robot firm Apis Cor announced it had completed the world’s largest individual 3D printed building. The office block, built in the UAE, is 9.5 metres in height and has a floor area of 640 m2.

Apis Cor’s 3D printer was moved around the open-air site by a crane as it built different parts of the structure.

  1. Office of the Future, UAE

Office of the Future

Another impressive 3D printed building in the UAE, the Office of the Future is a unique structure which is currently home (appropriately enough) to the emirate’s Future Foundation.

For this building, the printing itself was done offsite, with all the parts printed in 17 days. Workers installed the whole building in just 48 hours.

  1. 3D printed houses by WinSun, China

3D printed houses by WinSun

Chinese 3D printing firm WinSun also uses factory-based 3D printers to construct human dwellings. The firm has created a handful of home designs, including a small apartment block. The design’s users can quickly and cheaply print the parts before installing them on-site.

The firm reckons that one of their five-story apartment blocks could cost as little as $161,000 to print.

3D printing in construction certainly seems exciting, but what are the benefits of this approach?

  1. Lewis Grand Hotel 3D-printed room, Philippines 

When planning a trip to the Philippines, consider staying at the Lewis Grand Hotel, Angeles City, Pampanga, where the visitors will be greeted with the first 3D-printed hotel suite in the world. The hotel room was designed by Lewis Yakich, the hotel’s owner and a materials science engineer, in collaboration with Anthony Rudenko, a 3D printing specialist. They create a massive 3D printer that spews forth the sand and volcanic ash-based concrete. The suite was printed in 100 hours.

Lewis Grand Hotel 3D-printed room

Printing the first concrete model house in the Philippines

  1.  Two-Storey detached house, Beckum, Germany

The first residential 3D-printed house with about 860 square feet of living area per level is a brainchild of the German builder PERI GmbH and designer MENSE-KORTE ingenieure+architekten. It took around 5 minutes to print 1m2 of a double-skin wall using 3D printers of type BOD2. The building is made up of triple-skin cavity walls filled with an insulating compound. Installation of empty pipes and connections was manually performed while printing was in progress.

 Two-Storey detached house

How might 3D printed projects help construction firms?

Proponents of 3D printed house and commercial office designs point to several benefits of this approach:

  • Zero waste construction

In the UK, almost a third of the country’s waste is generated by the construction industry. According to Transparency Market Research Group, the construction industry is expected to produce 2.2 billion tons of waste globally by 2025.While a good portion of this comes from demolition, building sites tend to be wasteful too. It is common to order more materials than are needed, which is expensive and inefficient.3d printing construction market size

By contrast, 3D printing has the potential to cut waste to almost zero. A 3D printer only uses the material required to print the structure – no more or less. This could translate into huge savings.

  • Reduced energy consumption

3D printing in construction encourages using locally available and natural materials. Such practice could help save transportation, construction, and manufacturing energy, as most local materials are processed and installed using less energy. If traditional materials containing toxic chemicals are replaced with natural materials, the toxicity of building environments may be reduced. In addition, local materials are often appropriate for the local climatic conditions and can help reduce heating and cooling loads, which in turn saves construction costs.

  • Time and cost reduction

As with AI in construction, a 3D printer can work 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. This means construction projects could potentially be completed much faster, and some low skilled labour costs could be avoided.

  • Supports unusual designs

One of the most appealing characteristics of 3D printers is their ability to create complex and unusual designs, including ‘one-offs’. Because 3D printers work by layering up material, they can be programmed to create unusual shapes which would be much harder to build using traditional techniques.

  • Minimized human errors and improved safety 

The BLS’s workplace injury statistics published in 2020 indicated construction as one of the occupations with the highest incidence rates. Every day, approximately 5,333 workers die on the job site. Work injuries and fatalities would likely decrease with 3D printing as it makes construction more programmable and automated. Robotic construction requires standardized, accurate, and complete digital building information, making a 3D-printing approach more precise and efficient with minimal need for rework due to human error and any information conflicts. The possibility of damage to stored materials, assemblies, or work-in-progress is reduced because there is no onsite storage and movement of material.

  • New markets opening-up 

Using a 3D printer also allows construction companies to enter business sectors that were previously unavailable for them. And, for brand-new construction companies, having a 3D printer on hand becomes a competitive advantage. Furthermore, 3D printing is an excellent way for a construction company to improve its brand reputation among those concerned about the environmental impact of concrete construction on the planet.

 

 

Infograpfic 3d printing in construction

THE RISE OF STRUCTURAL 3D PRINTING

3D printing to strengthen the structure, micro-scale components and structural steel can revolutionize the sphere of design, construction and space exploration. And beyond that, ESA (European Space Agency) believes 3D-printed metals to build high-quality complex forms at a fraction of the cost and can go viral.

ESA together with the European Commission have set up a project to perfect the printing of metal components apt for space. There are 28 European industrial partners to have gathered in the AMAZE project – Additive Manufacturing Aiming Towards Zero Waste & Efficient Production of High-Tech Metal Products. Nearly everything can be designed by a computer, so AMAZE is clear about the desire to install a 3D printer onboard a spacecraft, once an astronaut needs a certain tool, it may easily be designed and printed out.

3D PRINTING IN CIVIL ENGINEERING

3D printing in civil engineering has grown in popularity in the aerospace and biomedical engineering industries during the last decade. This revolutionary manufacturing technique’s promise lies in its ability to construct any geometrical form with no formal constraints, minimizing material waste while enhancing performance and results. The construction industry’s march toward automation has lately hit several significant milestones, including the creation of the first structures using robotic arms and 3D printing technology.

The use of 3D printing methods in the creation of structural elements made of polymeric materials, concrete, and metals is becoming more common. These techniques in civil engineering may generate free forms and innovative architectural shapes thanks to the use of CAD-integrated software. Despite significant research efforts in aerospace and biomedical engineering to assess this mechanism, there is still a lack of understanding of the uses, applications, and impacts of 3D-printed materials in relation to civil structures, both in terms of material properties and structural response.

first 3D-printed steel footbridge

Imperial College London World’s first 3D-printed steel footbridge

WIKI HOUSE 3D PRINTING IN CONSTRUCTION: BEHIND THE CONCEPT

Wiki House is an innovative project created by a small group of London-based designers in 2011. It offers an open-source digital construction system that allows users to create, download, share designs and print their own houses. The kit doesn’t need special training and skills and may be constructed in a single day. The components may be digitally cut from a conventional sheet material like plywood using a CNC machine, reducing the time, expense, and expertise required in traditional construction. A standard two-bedroom house may be built for less than £50,000, and extra components such as cladding, services, insulation, and windows can be added to the framework. The first house built using Wiki House open-source technology was a two-storey 3D-printed building. It was presented at the London Design Festival in 2014.

The Wiki House movement is led by Alastair Parvin, whose TED presentation “Architecture for the people, by the people” sheds light on the prospects of 3D printing in construction. The creators of this project believe that Wiki House can help solve the housing problems and is especially helpful in emergency situations, such as post-earthquake conditions (there is already evidence that 3D-printed houses can withstand a magnitude 8.0 earthquake). In the future, it may become a realistic alternative for supplying inexpensive homes while also putting the customer in control of the design.

3D printing Wiki House building

Wiki House building with the use of 3D printing. 

IS 3D PRINTING A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE OF CONSTRUCTION?

3D printing has the ability to fundamentally alter the structure of supply chains by changing the way products are designed and made. According to the research, 3D printing can assist the construction sector in becoming leaner, more efficient, and more sustainable. Academics from Saxion University of Applied Sciences Ivo Kothman and Niels Faber claim that 3D printing technology “changes the rules of the game.” They conducted a study on the feasibility of 3D printing concrete, and their findings can be summarized as follows:

  • 3D Printing makes a supply chain and the whole design process shorter. Because of on-site 3D printing, several time-consuming phases in the design process may be eliminated. Architects, engineers, contractors, clients, and executive parties typically required to provide input during the building design process are no longer needed with 3D printing. Because all these tasks may be combined into the position of the architect that uses simulation techniques and modeling to assure structural integrity.
  • Pipe and electrical installation become simpler and more efficient. Heating systems, insulation, running water, and electricity all require labor-intensive on-site installation in traditional construction. However, with 3D printing, some of these functionalities may be incorporated into the 3D printing process. Printing hollow walls requires fewer resources, improves insulation, and may enable the use of 3D-printed canals to carry hot or cold water. Furthermore, by eliminating the requirement for on-site installations, waste may be reduced.
  • Better logistic process. 3D printing has the ability to eliminate three key issues related to shipping logistics. First, many components get damaged in transit, which might be avoided with on-site printing. Secondly, in order to endure shipping, parts must be over-engineered, incurring additional expenses. Such over-engineering would be eliminated by on-site 3D printing.
  • Making custom-built homes available to a broader market. Traditionally, building a house with the assistance of an architect has been too expensive for many consumers. With 3D printing of concrete, it doesn’t matter what shape you need to print: it’s irrelevant to the cost. That means that in the future more people will be able to buy bespoke homes to fit their needs.

An example of an eco-sustainable 3D-printed house Tecla by WASP and Mario Cucinella Architects.

Beyond the hype

While 3D printing is certainly an appealing concept, it is important to pierce through some of the hype. Sceptics point out that there are several limitations to the technology:

  • Costs of R&D

Most building firms operate on relatively thin profit margins. The investment needed to use 3D printing designs on a widespread basis would be enormous.

  • Will customers see it as a gimmick?

3D printed houses, offices, shops or other structures are often impressive to look at. But, would most people really want to live or work in one? Many people remain culturally attached to buildings made from bricks. Other technologies such as prefabricated homes have also gathered attention in the past but failed to catch on despite often being cheaper than the existing norm.

  • Difficulties of integration with other components

3D printers are good at following unique and interesting designs. Nevertheless, if you want a building which incorporates a variety of media or  has various elements which don’t lend themselves to 3D printing, it would be hard to incorporate a 3D printer into the construction process.

  • Skilled labour shortage

With the existing labour shortage in the construction sector, 3D printing will require an even more specialized skill set that would have to be chosen from a smaller niche pool of candidates. So, finding qualified workers to work in 3D printing construction environments may become a challenging task in the future.

  • Control of construction quality

Weather conditions may slow down the traditional construction process, but things can get even worse with 3D printing. Environmental factors could make 3D printing in commercial construction a bust rather than a boom. Furthermore, quality control in construction can be a difficult task, requiring constant monitoring by real humans.

  •  Lack of codes and regulations

While 3D printing has lately made headlines, it hasn’t had a significant influence on the building sector yet. The liability issue may arise with employing printers rather than humans to conduct some building tasks. There is currently a lot of ambiguity about this area of 3D printing in construction. Until rules and regulations are clearly established, 3D printing is unlikely to become mainstream in the building industry.

How might 3D printing integrate with construction?

There is now solid evidence showing that 3D printing is credible and applicable in the construction sector, and it is likely that the technology will start to be seen more and more in the industry in the coming years.

How far these machines end up being used on-site, or whether they remain largely a tool for pre-fabrication, remains to be seen. But, for the right kind of project, it seems reasonable to expect 3D printers will join the arsenal of tools available to builders.

About PlanRadar

PlanRadar was founded in 2013 and provides innovative mobile-first software solutions to the construction and real estate industries. Our app is available on all iOS, Android and Windows devices and has helped more than 7,000 customers in over 44 countries to digitise their workflow. Learn more about the app here.

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