It almost sounds like magic; homes and offices being built in days and weeks, rather than months or years. Buildings being erected quickly, cheaply and more efficiently than ever before and all with minimal human involvement. It all sounds like science fiction, but this is rapidly becoming science fact with recent advances in construction 3D printing.
Simply put, 3D printing is a manufacturing process in which a printer assembles a solid object working off of instructions given by a computer, similar to a regular printer printing out a document. 3D printing is called an additive process because the printer ‘adds’ together thin layers of material to create the finished product, as opposed to traditional production methods which are subtractive, where raw materials are cut and assembled into the final product.
Once a tool for hobbyists and laboratories, 3D Printing is slowly becoming more widely accepted. The global market for 3D printing is expected to reach US$120 billion by 2020 and around US$300 billion by 2025. Driven by advances in technology and falling prices, 3D printing is changing the way we view manufacturing and is becoming a critical part of Industry 4.0. Going by similar technologies in the past such as, printers, calculators and GPS, the time period from introduction to mainstream adoption seems to be around 15 years. With that in mind, we can expect commercial 3D printers to be available for purchase for as little as $500 by 2022.
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Benefits of 3D Printing in Construction over Traditional Techniques
- Faster: As 3D printers don’t need to eat or sleep, the construction goes on until the project is completed, allowing for faster build times. In 2015, Chinese firm, Winsun made headlines by 3D printing 10 houses in less than 24 hours and just this year, an American company, Icon showcased their 3D printing technology at SXSW in Texas by printing a home in 24 hours and for less than $10,000 USD.
- Cheaper: A US Department of Energy study in 2013 giving an overview of this technology found that properly implemented, additive manufacturing technology can reduce materials needs and costs by up to 90%. In addition, in situations where additive manufacturing is competitive, energy savings of up to 50% can be realized.
- Efficient: 3D printers use the exact amount of material needed for a build and no more. This drastically cuts down on the materials needed for construction. In addition, recycled materials from demolished buildings can be processed to be used as raw material, boosting efficiency even further.
- Flexible: As 3D printing is an automated process following instructions from a computer, we can create more complex shapes and designs than we could before. This opens up whole new areas of design and avenues for creativity for designers and architects.
- Safer: Where a traditional construction site for a house can have dozens of people, 3D printed houses require minimal human oversight. This in turn makes construction sites far safer for contractors as the majority of the work is done by a robot.
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The Challenges of 3D Printing Technology in Construction
Although 3D printing technology has advanced rapidly since its inception, it still faces challenges, particularly with regards to the construction sector. Some of the main hurdles facing the technology are:
- Cost: As it stands, an on-site 3D printer costs between $500,000 USD to $2 million USD and is limited to building small homes. However, some companies and start-ups are developing the technology to make 3D printers more versatile and able to cover a larger area for less initial investment.
- Materials & Process: Unlike traditional construction techniques, 3D printing raw materials have to be very carefully prepared and monitored in order to prevent the material from hardening in the printer itself. Though the range of printable materials has grown in recent years, with recent designs able to even print metal, 3D printers are currently more susceptible to changes in ambient temperature and require constant monitoring and adjustment.
- Regulations: As 3D printing gets more and more widespread, regulations will need to be reviewed and updated in order to account for this new technology. Rigorous testing and study must be done in order to ensure that 3D printed buildings meet the same standards set by their traditional counterparts.
3D Printing in the Middle East
As governments across the GCC and Middle East come to terms with rapid population growth as well as a major demographic shift, the need for affordable housing to be built quickly becomes more and more apparent. Though still a developing technology, 3D printing has caught the eye of a few governments in the region, such as:
- United Arab Emirates As the City of the Future, Dubai has taken steps to fully embrace this technology, with the Dubai 3D Printing Strategy aiming to make Dubai a global 3D manufacturing and innovation hub by 2030. A goal has been set by the government to ensure all new buildings in Dubai are at least 25% 3D printed to boost innovation and adoption of this technology. Set at 2% from 2019, the requirement will be scaled up as time passes and the technology becomes more reliable.
- Saudi Arabia In a move to help achieve the Saudi Ministry of Housing’s goal of 1.5 million new homes in the next 5 years, the Saudi government has signed a deal with the Chinese 3D printing construction company Winsun to lease 100 3D printers worth USD 1.5 billion. This deployment is set to be the largest 3D printing endeavour in the world, with Winsun technology being a key part in the Saudi effort to solve their affordable housing shortage.
A technology on the cusp of breaking into the mainstream, 3D printing technology is advancing rapidly, with industry leaders and governments around the world waking up to its potential. While additive manufacturing is unlikely to wholly replace traditional construction techniques in the near future, it still promises a sea change in an industry that has operated more or less unchanged for the last century. Who knows? As the technology develops, maybe one day we can read about the first 3D printed skyscraper. That day might not be as far off as we think.