3D printing has become one of the most interesting new construction technologies, both for residential and commercial use. In its gaining popularity, more tech companies have started to build larger 3D printers capable of printing at a greater scale and speed. In fact, some printers are now able to print entire structures and buildings in metal or concrete.
Gone are the days of simply 3D printing a plastic pen for its novelty. Even the construction industry, which is historically conservative and slow to change, is quickly adapting with the use of digital fabrication technologies.
How is 3D printing impacting the future of construction, and what does this mean for the building industry moving forward?
The basics of 3D printing
3D printers make physical objects using a digital model of that object. So, an architect could input a model of a door in their computer, and the printer would physically create that exact door in the architect’s chosen materials.
3D printing was first used to create small-scale models of larger buildings. Now, 3D printing has taken on more advanced uses. These printers can make molds, components, objects, or even entire structures.
So far, 3D printers have successfully built small office buildings and houses. WinSun is a Chinese 3D printing company that has already printed several batches of houses and a few office buildings. Their construction of a 2-story 1,100 square meter villa took only one day of printing and two days of assembly, and it used 60% less waste and 80% less manpower than typical construction.
There are a number of companies with larger projects in the works as well. For example, MX3D is a Dutch startup that’s working to print a fully-functional stainless steel bridge that will be installed over one of the oldest canals in Amsterdam.
3D printing is eliminating some of the greatest traditional concerns with the construction process, including cost, time, efficiency, and manpower.
What are the key advantages and potential concerns for 3D printing in the construction industry?
Advantages of 3D printing in construction
1. Reduced costs
The most significant advantage of 3D printing is its overall reduced costs. It lowers expenses associated with raw materials, labor, and time. In fact, WinSun estimates that 3D printing can create up to 50% savings on the cost of a house construction project.
First, 3D printing reduces supply cost. It actually wastes less material and can use recycled resources to print. This saves money on the procurement of supplies, especially with regards to natural resources like lumber. Estimated savings on building materials can be as high as 60%.
Second, 3D printing minimizes the need for manpower. Labor is one of the highest costs in the construction industry, but 3D printing can do the work of a number of men (and in a shorter period of time). Laborers are just needed for assembly and final touches. This might actually save between 50 and 80% on the typical costs of manpower on site.
Third, 3D printing drastically reduces the time it takes for a construction project. Printers can work throughout the night without breaks or other labor regulations. What could take a construction team weeks or months can take a 3D printer a matter of days. This time saving means construction companies can take on more projects at a lower overhead cost.
For example, WinSum printed a 3D office building in Dubai in May 2016. After assembling the printer on site, it only took 17 days to print and 2 days to install the entire structure. The interior design process actually took longer than the construction of the building itself.
As mentioned, 3D printing actually wastes less material during production. The printer only uses the exact amount of material needed to print a given structure. You’re not sawing off extra lumber or scrap metal that then has to go to waste.
Moreover, the materials used for 3D printing are often made from recycled materials. For example, the cement used might be made from old sand, cement, and even paper fibers that were leftover from other projects.
The printed materials used to construct the building are themselves recyclable as well. This means that after the building is no longer needed, the materials can be broken down and reused at nearly 100%. (Because of this recyclability, a lot of builders are starting to consider creating pop-up shops that they can print and pull down as needed.)
Plus, 3D printing cuts down on energy expenditure during the building process. The electricity on a construction site is typically one of the most astronomical aspects of the building’s overhead, but 3D printing gets rid of this completely. In fact, the Association of Construction and Development estimated that 3D printing consumes 40-60% less energy than a typical job site.
This green construction is great for the environment and for the wallets of builders and clients alike.
3. Increased safety
With a reduced need for labor and the flexibility of 3D printing, the risk of serious injury on the job site reduces drastically. 3D printing can be used for more dangerous tasks, like constructing structures with heavy materials and assembling more intricate designs. Removing humans from the riskier processes minimizes the potential for liability, costs, and serious danger associated with construction-related labor.
Along with improved safety, removing humans from the construction process also removes the potential for human error. This both minimizes potential costs and protects users of the building moving forward. 3D printing technology is more likely to reliably create sturdy, well-constructed buildings time and time again.
4. Enhanced project planning
3D printing has been used to make small-scale models and replicas since the 90s, but the technology is even more advanced today. These printers can quickly and effectively create perfect-scale models of what a structure’s architecture, design, and functionality would look like. These models are more accurate and more cost- and time-effective than handcrafting.
This not only creates a visual representation of the project, but it also helps pinpoint problem areas, which can help avoid delays before the construction even begins.
5. Design enhancements
3D printing actually allows architects to be more flexible in the shape of their designs. Because printers can create molds, individual components, and entire structures, gone are the days of linear shapes. Architects can now defy gravity and bend the laws of physics with 3D printer’s movable and rotatable robot arms.
The conventions of construction are quickly changing with 3D printing, and space-age building designs are closer than we think.
6. Global development
Because of the lowered costs, eco-friendliness, and improved safety and efficiency, 3D printing is making homes more accessible and affordable. This is allowing construction organizations to start expanding their offerings globally at a reduced rate.
This is especially showing major advancements and successes in underdeveloped areas and third-world countries. 3D printing is allowing builders to provide homes and structures to societies that have never before had access to these kinds of resources.
Bringing affordable homes globally is going to show incredible advancements in the overall improvement of our world.
Concerns with 3D printing in construction
Despite the advantages of 3D printing, the construction industry is still hesitant to make 3D printing wide scale. It could have such significant and drastic impacts on the industry that it’s making some builders hesitant and nervous.
One of the biggest concerns of 3D printing is that it could potentially make the construction worker partially extraneous. As discussed in the advantages, 3D printing can improve safety and reduce costs—primarily because it removes the worker from the equation.
This doesn’t mean that construction workers are a thing of the past. However, reduced labor costs might mean that there are fewer employment opportunities in an industry that currently employs over 10 million people in the U.S. This might show major changes in the unemployment rate for the construction business.
Thus, contractors are going to need to figure out how to make workers relevant when paired with this new technology. Likely, workers will become more advanced and skilled. Physical labor will become more intricate and strategic.
Moreover, there are still some logistical concerns with 3D printing. Transporting or assembling large printers can be highly costly and dangerous. It can also be challenging to protect these printers from weather and theft while on site.
Some capacities of 3D printing are still up in the air and need to be explored further as 3D printing continues to become more popular.
The future of 3D printing
You might be adding a 3D printer to your workspace sooner than you think. Whether used to build singular components or entire structures, 3D printing is quickly gaining momentum in the public and private sectors of construction. It can help reduce costs, enhance efficiency, increase safety, and improve designs.
But how 3D printing will actually affect the future of the construction is still unclear. Its impact on laborers and client relationships is yet to be seen… though its major gains are not to be ignored. It’s critical to stay educated about the industry in order to stay ahead of the curve with these changing technologies.
How do you think 3D printing will impact the construction industry? Leave us a comment below with your take!