Stereolithography, as invented in first half of 1980’s by Charles Hull, was a tangible 3D image that was created from digital data. For next decade and half this technology continued to evolve in the laboratories around the world. Around 2005, Dr. Adrian Bowyer, started an open source movement to democratize manufacturing by distributing inexpensive 3D printers to enable people to create day to day objects on their own. Currently this trend is empowering many individuals and mid-small sized firms to experiment on various products. 3D printing is hailed as the disruptive technology that can impact many areas, such as, aerospace, medicine, manufacturing and even traditional fields of construction.
In May 2016, Dubai assembled world’s first 3D printed office space. In 2015, WinSun, a Chinese company printed structural components that were assembled into full scale structures. They claimed to have built ten 3D printed houses in 24 hrs. Currently NASA and ESA are working with to explore the potential of additive manufacturing to build structures on Moon or even Mars. Construction 3D Printing (c3Dp) or 3D Construction Printing (3DCP) refers to various technologies that use 3D printing as a core method to fabricate buildings or construction components. Alternative terms are also in use, such as Large-scale Additive Manufacturing (LSAM), or Freeform construction (FC), also to refer to sub-groups, such as ‘3D Concrete’, used to refer to concrete extrusion technologies.
The building-on-demand (BOD) by 3D Printhuset, a small office hotel building, with a 3D printed wall and foundation structure. The first building of its kind in Europe.
There are a variety of 3D printing methods used at construction scale, these include the following main methods: extrusion (concrete/cement, wax, foam, polymers), powder bonding (polymer bond, reactive bond, sintering) and additive welding. 3D printing at a construction scale will have a wide variety of applications within the private, commercial, industrial and public sectors. Potential advantages of these technologies include faster construction, lower labor costs, increased complexity and/or accuracy, greater integration of function and less waste produced.
A number of different approaches have been demonstrated to date which includes on-site and off-site fabrication of buildings and construction components, using industrial robots, gantry systems and tethered autonomous vehicles. Demonstrations of construction 3D printing technologies to date have included fabrication of housing, construction components (cladding and structural panels and columns), bridges and civil infrastructure artificial reefs, follies and sculptures.
The technology has seen a significant increase in popularity in recent years as many new companies emerged on the market, including some backed up by very strong names from the construction industry. This led to several important milestones, such as the first 3D printed building (Winsun), the first 3D printed bridge (D-Shape), the first 3D printed part in a public building (XtreeE), the first living 3D printed building in Europe and CIS (Specavia), the first 3D printed building in Europe fully approved by the authorities (3D Printhuset), among many others.
3D printing or Additive manufacturing is a controlled process of sequential layering of materials so as to create a 3D form. A 3D model of the item is created using a computer aided design (CAD) software or using a 3D scanner. The printer then reads the machine code to lay layers in a sequential manner. This process of layering is usually a slow and time consuming process, but still faster than traditional construction. The workings of a 3D printer are similar to any normal desktop printers that we find in our office or home. Instead of ink, 3D printers can deposit the desired material ranging from titanium to human cartilage in successive layers to create the form we desire.
Rapid innovation and widespread adoption of this technology has helped it emerge from the niche status and is fast becoming a viable alternative for conventional manufacturing processes. The many benefits that 3D printing offers to consumers and businesses across industries include – ability for rapid prototyping, reduction in lead times, rapid innovation, rapid manufacturing, reduction in overhead, mass customization and flexibility to work with a range of unique materials.
A recent McKinsey research suggests that the economic implications of 3D printing will be close to $550 Billion by the year 2025.
Architect James Bruce Gardiner pioneered architectural design for Construction 3D Printing with two projects. The first Freefab Tower 2004 and the second Villa Roccia 2009-2010. FreeFAB Tower was based on the original concept to combine a hybrid form of construction 3D printing with modular construction. This was the first architectural design for a building focused on the use of Construction 3D Printing. Influences can be seen in various designs used by Winsun, including articles on the Winsun’s original press releas and office of the future The FreeFAB Tower project also depicts the first speculative use of multi-axis robotic arms in construction 3D printing, the use of such machines within construction has grown steadily in recent years with projects by MX3D and Branch Technology.
The Villa Roccia 2009-2010 took this pioneering work a step further with the a design for a Villa at Porto Rotondo, Sardinia, Italy in collaboration with D-Shape. The design for the Villa focused on the development of a site specific architectural language influenced by the rock formations on the site and along the coast of Sardinia, while also taking into account the use of a panellised prefabricated 3D printing process. The project went through prototyping and didn’t proceed to full construction.
Francios Roche (R&Sie) developed the exhibition project and monograph ‘I heard about’ in 2005 which explored the use of a highly speculative self propelling snake like autonomous 3D printing apparatus and generative design system to create high rise residential towers. The project although impossible to put into practice with current or contemporary technology demonstrated a deep exploration of the future of design and construction. The exhibition showcased large scale CNC milling of foam and rendering to create the freeform building envelopes envisaged.
Dutch architect Janjaap Ruijssenaars’s performative architecture 3D-printed building was planned to be built by a partnership of Dutch companies.] The house was planned to be built in the end of 2014, but this deadline wasn’t met. The companies have said that they are still committed to the project.
The Building On Demand, or BOD, a small office hotel 3D printed by 3D Printhuset’s and designed by architect Ana Goidea, has incorporated curved walls and a rippling effects on their surface, to showcase the design freedom that 3D printing allows in the horizontal plane.
A recent study by Deloitte summarized 3D printing as a technology that will have greater impact on the world over the next 20 years than all of the innovations since the industrial revolution. Such an emphatic claim is bound to have significant influence on all industries including traditional sectors such as construction.
Construction industry currently contributes close to 5-7% of global GDP. This industry that has spanned and evolved from the times of the great pyramids to the modern day Burj Khalifa is not really known for its agile adaptations. Data from many construction project show that on an average the material wastage is close to 20-25%. These wastages add to the final cost of the project. The only way forward for the industry is to evolve into a leaner, responsive sector with rapid adoption of new technology. Will 3D printing present itself as a viable solution for industry to address this constant problem? Saving transportation cost and ability to use cleaner material will significantly impact the economics of a project, but will the industry acknowledge and realise the benefit? As 3D printing gains traction and wide acceptability across various industry, can construction industry be concurrent adopters of this technology?
To realise its true benefit construction companies must be fast, flexible and capable of understanding the implication of 3D printing. The use of 3D printing can have huge economic and ecological impact. This technology has the potential to increase the usage of eco-friendly materials. As 3D printing is technology driven the rapid setup cost, faster construction, reduced wastage and decrease in labour cost can have a huge impact on the bottom line of any project in the future.
Despite all the hype around 3D printing and its transformative impact on the industry this technology will not entirely replace the conventional construction anytime soon. Whether it complements the traditional nature of the industry is a parameter worth measuring. Construction of a house in its entirety using this additive technology has its limitations on the ability to use wide array of material simultaneously. The services such as ductwork, piping and conduits will have to meet the current regulatory standards.
India has always played catch up with innovation and new technologies. Very few new ideas have ever been seeded in India which have grown into full-fledged trend setters globally. 3D printing offers a great opportunity to stay with the leaders and drive innovation in this new field. With close to 100 Billion dollar worth of investment expected into infrastructure, it will be prudent and visionary of large infrastructure companies to invest heavily in R&D in this field.
India is prone to its share of annual natural calamities, 3D printing can enable rapid construction of small modular house in far inaccessible regions for immediate relief to the victims. The faster yet cost effective construction and use of ecological materials makes this technology attractive to address the social problem of lack of mass housing for in urban India.
To fully capitalize on these opportunities government must make 3D printing widely accessible in colleges and schools. Government must work in tandem with the private sector to create new businesses, business models and usher in an era of job creation and thus social wealth.
The behemoth that is the global construction industry is not exactly known for its ability to adapt quickly or frequently churn out innovations. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Inefficiencies will often occur, for instance, due to high costs for construction equipment or long planning cycles, slowing industry activity. We take a look at how the construction industry could transform into a lean, responsive sector. Such a technology that has the potential to ease some of the aches of the industry and is gaining more and more traction is 3D printing.
Business applications of 3D printing are predicted to be even more profitable than its consumer market. Gartner, an IT research firm, estimated a compound annual growth of more than 106 per cent and sales greater than US$13.4bn by 2018. An ever growing interest in green construction and the significant savings it provides compared with traditional buildings methods (see our blog post on green construction) suggests more companies will turn to 3D printing. The use of 3D printing in construction has huge potential as an eco-friendly process, as it supports the utilisation of new (and green) materials and results in lower waste production. MIT and ETH Zürich, for instance, have looked into what is called ‘reversible concrete’ and developed an additive printing process that contests concrete as a temporary solution. They use a container wherein layers of pebbles are added. In between those string is applied in an algorithmical pattern to act as a binder. This makes it possible to create almost any geometrical shape, that can be just as easily deconstructed by simply removing the binder-string. Clean up the gravel then, and you are left without any residue. Additionally, almost all 3D printing systems allow for simple setup and operation, rapid construction, enabling reduced labour costs. 3D printing therefore not only has the potential to reduce overall construction costs, relieve managers’ consciences, but also to facilitate the production of increasingly complex architectural designs and functional integration.
Attaining the code
This construction method still has some development to undergo before it meets strenuous building codes, which themselves vary from region to region. The construction industry and the methods it uses have not changed much in the last 100 years, so it may be a challenge to successfully integrate 3D printing and other innovations into the mix.3D printing companies need to prove their techniques can produce buildings that stand the test of time, weather, sturdiness and other livability standards. In the U.S. and other countries with construction standards and regulations, 3D printing construction is so far being used for conception, prototypes and even artistic architecture. Many of these companies tout that 3D-printing structures could alleviate housing shortages in developing countries or in the aftermath of natural disasters by providing temporary housing.
The outlook is very promising, then, but at the moment, 3D-printed construction is clearly still a niche market. The outputs so far have for the most part been relatively small-scale and low-volume. As of the start of 2018, fewer than 40 large-scale demonstration projects and prototypes have been fully realized around the world, and the total value of all outputs is estimated at less than $100 million (in an industry with annual revenue of $10 trillion globally).
The technical limitations are sure to ease, however, as a result of further breakthroughs in equipment, materials, and processes. In due course, 3D printing will begin to compete with conventional in-situ construction and with prefab, and will likely be harnessed to produce greater quantities, to build larger-scale structures, and to fabricate everyday objects and objects that are more specialized and complex.
Champions of 3D printing have identified a number of ways the technology is benefiting, or could be benefiting, the construction sector.
Freedom of Design. By reducing the costs associated with nonstandard shapes, 3D printing gives free rein to architects and designers. The technology can turn complex designs into real structures that are beyond the capabilities of traditional builders. As the new slogan goes, “If you can’t build it, print it.”
Autonomous Construction. The skills shortage affecting the construction industry in many high-income coun-tries could soon become less relevant-autonomous or semiautonomous 3D printers require minimal human surveillance. In addition, some of these printers are lighter and more mobile than conventional construction ma-chinery such as cranes, and they can be used in hazardous areas or on re-mote sites, where prefabrication would be impracticable. Despite their high price, their effect will be to reduce overall equipment costs, which typically account for 20% to 25% of the cost of a traditional construction project.
Predictability and Speed of Delivery. By operating 24/7 and by reducing onsite glitches and hence delays, 3D printers can cut construction times dramatically. Deliveries of building materials, for instance, will dwindle, as will the complex interactions between various trades.
Sustainability. 3D printing will reduce the construction sector’s harmful impact on the environment. For a start, a large proportion of the feedstockas much as 50%, according to some expertscould be recycled material. Furthermore, 3D printing allows contractors to use less material in the first place: by creating complex shapes, such as overhangs and folds, for functions such as insulation and shading, it dispenses with the need for additional material or separate structural units. In many cases, the form enables the function.
Special Properties. Thanks to its mastery of “topology optimiza-tion”through the use of conical, hollow, or honeycomb structures, for example3D printing can endow its products with special properties, such as increased tensile strength or enhanced thermal insulation, without adding to their weight. Once again, form enables function.
The full benefits will materialize only when 3D printing is applied at scale. That time lies in the futureexactly how far depends on the rate at which the various obstacles are overcome. The main issues are as follows:
Printer Technology and Economics. A mainstream onsite concrete printer costs $500,000 to $2,000,000, though prices should fall. At less than 33 feet (10 meters) in height, and with a throughput of less than 550 pounds (250 kilograms) per hour, it is limited to printing fairly small buildings. For larger-scale buildings, such as multi-story office blocks or large-surface-area malls, a far more ambitious machine would be needed. Note that some startups are addressing these issues of cost and scale by experimenting with a different approach-deploying mobile, multi-axis industrial robots with a mounted printing nozzle. A used robot of this kind can cost $50,000 or less.
Printing Process and Materials. Given the erratic weather on a typical con-struction site, it is not easy to ac-curately control the cooling or setting of materials, and hence to guarantee structural stability. Automatic adjust-ment has proved challenging, and in-line quality control remains far from perfect. More complex outputs, invol-ving the printing of compound materials, are proving difficult to master: walls of reinforced concrete, for example, or walls with printed piping and wiring inside. The finishing and resolution of printed structures represent further challenges: the most promising so-lution here is to supplement the additive process with a traditional subtractive process, such as surface milling.
Design and Engineering. Most architects and designers have yet to take advantage of their new creative freedom, and many show little interest in doing so. Tradition-bound as it still is, the construction industry will not easily adjust to the very untraditional concept of design for additive manufacturing. Even when architects and designers do produce excitingly innovative designs, that is not the end of the story. The blueprint has to be translated into a realized structurea task that many construction engineers still struggle to complete. As professional education modernizes, however, and as a new generation of professionals takes over, the traditions should lose their power.
Regulation, Procurement Rules, and Client Skepticism. The adoption of 3D printing in construction has been hampered by bureaucratic factors: slow incorporation into building codes, the imposition of arbitrary prescriptive standards rather than performance-based standards, and wide regional variation in regulations. (In many regions, building codes make no provision at all for 3D-printed construction techniques, materials, and testing.) Meanwhile, many prospective clients and tenants are underinformed or unconvinced about the safety and durability of 3D-printed buildings.
Noteworthy innovation of 3D construction
While London-based Bottletop was declared last month to be the world’s first store with a 3D printed interior, constructed out of sustainable materials and a 3D printed lattice structure by KUKA robots, and the IAAC used soil to demonstrate its 3D printing construction technology, we’ve heard a lot more 3D printing news in the construction industry about structural materials like concrete, cement, and steel. Concrete is one of the biggest materials currently being developed in the 3D printing world, because it’s able to be fabricated into nearly any shape even army barracks and public bathrooms creates zero waste, and is able to be locally sourced in areas where building materials are scarce.
The Technical University of Munich (TUM) has been studying the advantages of 3D printed concrete, and using it to create thin, extremely lightweight but strong pipes, not dissimilar to the delicate bones of a bird. The pipes are supported inside by an intricate bracing structure 3D printed with a selective binding method the structure would have been impossible to create through conventional methods of manufacturing.
Vancouver-based LifeTec Construction Group is working on some private projects with its disruptive technology, which is able to 3D print studs out of structural steel for home construction. The company uses the advanced end-to-end design and build Framecad system to rapidly construct quality buildings without the use of lasers to shape the material, and steel is an ideal construction material, because it’s environmentally friendly, more resistant to to mold and warping, and durable.
2017 has been an extremely busy year in terms of innovation in robotic construction. Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis, the creator of large-scale 3D printing method Contour Crafting, brought his 2015 prediction that the robotic 3D printing machines would be commercially available within a couple years to fruition this summer, not long before the IAAC publicly demonstrated the ability of its large cable-driven robots to 3D print large structures directly on a construction site. Caterpillar and the private equity fund Rusnano Sistema Sicar both made in-vestments in robotic 3D printing construction this year, while Fraunhofer ILT and Cazza Construction each debuted new robotic 3D printing construction innovations.
Robotic 3D printing technology was also used to manufacture the first robotic 3D printed bridges, which were made with modified plastic and stand at Tongji University’s College of Architecture and Urban Planning (CAUP).
The Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) in the Netherlands began developing a giant concrete 3D printer two years ago for a large-scale research project. The concrete 3D printer, which also makes use of a construction robot, was used in a collaborative project to 3D print a concrete pedestrian and bike bridge, which officially opened to cyclists this fall. The most unique bridge of all was proposed in Mosul, and would be home to 3D printed houses, as between 50% and 75% of the city was destroyed by ISIS over the last few years.
Bridges weren’t the only structure 3D printed this year in Russia, just a few months after a 38-square-meter house was 3D printed in 24 hours, 2017 saw the completed construction of a residential house, made out of standard M-300 concrete sand with a 3D portal printer.
According to ETH Zurich, the DFAB House it’s building with several business partners will be the first house to be designed, planned, and built with almost entirely digital processes, including robotic construction and 3D printing. Chinese construction company WinSun agreed to lease 100 3D printers to a Saudi Arabian contracting company, which will be used to 3D print 1.5 million affordable homes.
A creative agency based in New York and Oslo started a project to create modular hexagonal pods, featuring 3D printed interiors made out of recycled polycarbonate, as personal shelters for the homeless in NYC, and CyBe Construction showed off its speed and skill by 3D printing five concrete benches in a single day.
Dutch firm MX3D has been 3D-printing a steel bridge across the Oudezijds Achterburgwal canal in Amsterdam since May 2017. MX3D is printing large sections of the bridge and will robotically weld them in place to complete the bridge. Construction will likely wrap up in late 2018.
3D printing likely has the most disruptive potential in building and construction. 3D printers work with a variety of construction materials and independently of human operators, both of which are boons for the industry. With the advent of 3D printing, industry stakeholders pointed to the possibility of 3D-printed prefab components, but they are now imagining more disruptive involvement that includes printing structures in-situ from the ground up. A number of companies are at work on this vision. Dubai is becoming a leader in 3D printed buildings: Dubai Municipality is aiming to implement 3D printing in 25 percent of the emirate’s buildings by 2030.Regarding the market segments, the leading application so far is small-scale vertical construction, both residential and commercial; 3D printing is particularly suited to the nonstandard shapes and components. In the more immediate future, 3D printing in construction will extend its role further by popularizing and refining its special applications, such as printed molds or complex components, and keeping pace with ever more complex and ambitious designs. The momentum should continue, provided that the investment continues flowing as well.
- “3D Printing Takes Shape”, McKinsey Quarterly, January 2014
- “Disruptive manufacturing: The effects of 3D printing”, Report by Deloitte