3D printing has been a big buzz term over the past decade–and for good reason. Though initially developed for product prototyping purposes, 3D printing technology has advanced to the point where it has emerged as a key player in a variety of industries.
While clearly, 3D printing technology has proven beneficial in the medical, aerospace, and tool-making arenas since its inception, there's one other field that's potentially poised to break out: the construction sector.
With 3D printers now capable of printing building walls and processing cement, the technology could help reshape construction as we know it. But is 3D printing in construction just a fleeting trend or does it have real staying power as a technology that can serve as a key long-term solution? Below, we’ll explore how 3D has been already making waves in construction and what the future looks like.
Before we get into a history of 3D printing in the construction industry, it’s first important to take a step back in time to the origins of 3D printing itself.
3D printing’s roots date back to the mid-1980s when stereolithography, or SLA, was conceived. SLA works as a high-powered laser and turns a liquid resin into a solid material. SLA is an additive technology, which means it involves creating a product from the ground up in a layer-by-layer fashion. Today, SLA is still one of the most popular 3D printing technologies, though 3D printing is generally considered any technology that creates parts in an additive way. Some other popular additive technologies include selective laser sintering (SLS), fused deposition modeling (FDM) and direct metal deposition (DMD).
3D printing initially was utilized for quickly and accurately creating prototype parts. As additive processes improved, however, its viable uses began to expand. Prior to the adoption of building information modeling (BIM), 3D printing was even used by architectural firms to build scale models. It wasn’t long before it was administered for more ambitious construction purposes.
For more than a decade, 3D printing has been used in several ambitious initiatives and projects in construction, including:
Today, the 3D printing construction market is quickly growing, expected to reach $1.5 billion by 2024.
While 3D printing’s emergence in the construction industry is ongoing, certain building aspects are poised for more growth than others.
Concrete, specifically, is one of them. In fact, the concrete 3D printing market is projected to be valued at $56.4 million by 2021, growth that’s largely spurred by the amount of new, innovative projects that are being planned in construction. 3D printing in concrete doesn’t appear just to be a grassroots movement, either. In February 2017, Vinci, one of France’s leading construction firms, purchased a stake in XtreeE, a French startup company that specializes in 3D printing concrete structural elements.
In 2019, BAM opened Europe’s first concrete printing centre in the Netherland. The factory has already been tasked to deliver several 3D printed bridges throughout the region. Watch the video below to see how BAM and Saint-Gobain are changing the future of infrastructure with sustainable, scalable, and affordable 3D concrete printing solutions.
Though 3D printing concrete shows great potential, it’s worth noting that the overall technology when it comes to the concrete material is still relative in its infancy. In fact, most 3D printers that process concrete are still being tested and tweaked today, and aren't yet designed for manufacturing purposes. However, as we can see from the video above, the potential is there to additively build everything from foundations to walls to individual cinder blocks to bridges in a faster, more affordable, and more environmentally-friendly manner as the technology continues to progress.
Just why is 3D printing gaining so much buzz in the construction sector? As the industry faces increasing pressure to meet tight schedules and budgets, companies are looking to new innovations to help fill the gaps. 3D printing in construction offers a significant potential to increase efficiency in the building sector, including the following ways.
Recommended reading: Check out key takeaways from our podcast episode on harnessing the power of 3D printing in construction. In this deep-dive with Stephan Mansour, a 3D Printing & Emerging Technology Advisor at MaRiTama Ltd, he shares big benefits, common misconceptions, and meaningful opportunities for those who embrace 3D printing.
3D printing has already shown that it can build a home or building from the ground up in a matter of days. That’s a significantly faster timeframe than conventional construction, which can take months and years to fully construct a commercial building. According to Marco Vonk, Marketing Manager at Saint-Gobain Weber Beamix, “You save about 60% of the time on the jobsite and 80% in labor.”
Worldwide construction waste currently totals more than 1 billion tons each year, and according to Construction Dive, this number is expected to double by 2025. While 3D printing won’t be able to solve all of the construction waste problems, it can help. This is largely because 3D printing is an additive manufacturing process that only uses as much material as is necessary for creating a structure. When paired with other waste-reducing processes and building methods like prefabrication and lean construction, the potential of a waste-zero building seems all the more likely.
One of the great things about 3D printing is the design freedom that it offers. Architects are able to build complex designs that are otherwise unattainable, or too expensive or labor-intensive to create by conventional construction means. This can allow for a lot more innovation and creativity in the commercial construction space. Vonk adds, “3D concrete printing enables you to make any shape. You can bend it, you can make angles, you can make virtually any organic shape you want to, and it’s a one-to-one copy to what you designed on paper.”
According to OSHA, more than 5,000 workers are killed on the job each day. Because construction would be more programmable and automated, worker injuries and fatalities would likely decrease if 3D printing was incorporated onto the jobsite.
Despite the benefits and potential that 3D printing has in the construction sector, there are a number of factors that may prohibit the technology from becoming mainstream. Below, let’s explore a few of these challenges.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to the widespread adoption of 3D printing technology on construction sites is the high cost of purchasing or renting such equipment and the logistics involved in getting these large 3D printers to the work site. 3D printers are costly, and that upfront purchase cost doesn’t include materials or maintenance. Right now, it’s difficult for many construction professionals to justify 3D printing’s cost over the technology’s benefits.
The construction sector is booming and skilled workers are in high demand. The only problem is that there are not enough of them.
Even considering the labor shortage, 3D printing requires an even more specific skill set that would have to pull from a slimmer and more niche group of candidates. Construction labor shortages are already a problem, and finding qualified workers to employ in 3D printing construction environments could prove to be even more challenging in the future.
Weather already has the potential to slow construction progress, but issues with Mother Nature may be amplified with 3D printing. The weather, environmental factors and more are all conditions that could make 3D printing in commercial construction more of a bust than a boom. Furthermore, quality control in construction can already be a tricky matter. If not constantly monitored and overseen by real humans, quality in 3D printing could end up being a very expensive mess.
One drawback that might not immediately come to mind is the regulation of 3D printing. While regulation in 3D printing has made the news cycle recently, it still hasn’t fully impacted the construction industry. However, there’s also the liability that may come with using printers rather than humans to perform certain construction tasks. Currently, there’s much uncertainty in this aspect of 3D printing in construction. Until laws and regulations are clearly defined, it’s unlikely that 3D printing will make too much of a mark in the construction sector.
Does 3D printing in construction have real staying power? From what we've seen, the promise is strong, just as long as companies like BAM and Saint-Gobain continue to innovate and push boundaries.
Overall, the potential of 3D printing is too great to ignore. While the industry may never reach a point where it’s used exclusively, it’s only a matter of time that the technology will be improved and advance significantly. Overall, 3D printing is poised to be a viable solution that offers key benefits in cost savings and environmental friendliness for our building’s future.