3D Printing and the Future of Construction

3D Printing and the Future of Construction

By João Guerreiro

Earlier this month, Apis Cor announced the construction of a full building using its concrete 3D Printer. The company joins a trend that has started to emerge ever since Chinese company, Winsun shocked the construction world with the announcement that they used 3D Printing to erect 10 homes in a single day. With promises to lower construction times (printers can work 24/7), decrease raw materials use, eliminate waste, and improve safety in the workplace, 3D Printing has plenty to offer.

An example of in-situ 3D Printing using a crane system. (courtesy of Apis-Cor – www.apis-cor.com)


The Construction Industry Has a Labor Problem

The recession last decade particularly affected the construction sector. Plenty of projects were halted, companies went bankrupt and workers laid off. It is estimated that between 2006 and 2011, 2.3 million workers left the construction sector. The US Census published a study in late 2015 where they estimate that while 40% of these workers would eventually find their way back into the industry, 1/3rd moved to other industries and 1/4th never came back.

The construction industry has definitively bounced back and 2017 is expected to show the largest growth since the recession. While hundreds of thousands of new jobs were created over the past years, workers have not returned. Industry leaders have repeatedly brought up the difficulty in filling positions, and they fear this will lead to higher costs and extended timelines when completing projects.

Construction and Natural Resources:

It is no secret that the construction industry exploits resources. It is estimated that the construction of an average home generates 2.5 to 4 tons of waste. Add to that the large energy requirements to operate the machinery necessary to erect such structures and transporting those to the construction site. There is an opportunity for the construction industry to conserve resources and at the same time, reduce construction costs through innovations like 3D printing.

MX3D metal 3D Printer building a small model bridge through Wire and Arc Additive Manufacturing. The company is working on a full-size bridge that should be ready later this year in Amsterdam. (courtesy of Adriaan de Groot, MX3D – mx3d.com).

How Is 3D Printing Helping Construction Projects?

Material Costs – 3D Printing alleviates spending in key areas that are currently challenging the construction industry. 3D Printers typically have very little waste as the materials are deposited only where needed. Furthermore, a common trend in 3D Printing for construction has been the use of recycled and/or typical waste materials, further reducing construction costs. Estimates place construction project savings in raw materials can reach 50% in some cases.

An example of a 3D Printed wall. The design saves material and provides insulation on load bearing walls. (courtesy of Contour Crafting – www.contourcrafting.org).

Complex Tailor Made Structures – Changes in design and complex elements can add cost and time to construction setting. Specialized equipment or personnel can sometimes be required to guarantee that structures are done per the specifications. 3D Printers can read directly from the digital 3D model and print complex structures to the millimeter level in detail. This can be done either on-site or off-site and then assembled. Both cases typically result in more reliable construction and savings in time and resources.

Speed of Construction – 3D Printers most immediate advantage remains one of its crucial ones. Walls can be erected 5 to 10 times faster when using a 3D Printer.Winsur proved how efficient this is even when printing offsite by assembling 10 houses in a day. The costs are kept low with the 200 square meters’ houses costing only $4,800 per unit.

Labor Costs – Labor costs are a big part of the construction budget. With the current labor shortage climate in the western world, 3D Printing is estimated to result in up to 80% in savings on the labor cost per square meter. Even in emerging economies, the savings are significant.

Where Does It Still Need to Go?

While 3D Printing offers clear operational advantages and savings, it is currently a considerable investment – higher than traditional construction. Very few companies have embraced this new technology. Finished projects are scarce, and materials are limited.

There is a misconception that manual labor isn’t needed for 3D Printing. New workforce training would need to be implemented. Additionally, 3D printing is not an all-in-one solution. Piping, electrical grid, reinforcements, and frames are some of the elements that need to be manually installed. Furthermore, technical solutions need to be developed to allow an easy integration of construction elements or the deployment of different materials simultaneously.

One technical element that has received attention is the elimination of steel reinforcement altogether by employing new materials and design structures. This promises to make construction faster and more automated, but right now, no more than a few stories buildings have been successfully attempted.

Take Away

In the end, 3D Printing must be able to emerge in an industry that can have a hard time accepting a new technology that will change the way it works at the worksite. One place where we see an easier adoption path is on the prefab / offsite construction setting that is on the rise as an answer to some of the challenges mentioned. Implementation of 3D Printing here still provides many of the benefits discussed while not disrupting the worksite paradigm.

Ultimately, companies investing in 3D Printing will be among a restricted number of innovators with all the advantages and challenges that brings.

Keep an eye out for the next article on the topic where we’ll highlight some of the main techs and the innovators in this field!

Concept art of 3D Printing use in an extra-terrestrial environment. (Courtesy of Contour Crafting – www.contourcrafting.org).

If you have any questions or would like to know if we can help your business with its innovation challenges, please contact us here or email us at solutions@prescouter.com.

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