Since its beginnings in the 1980s, 3D Printing technology has transformed multiple industries and as the technology improves it could have a big impact on the construction sector.
In this blog, we’ll look at what 3D printing is, the innovations being tested and the changes these could mean for the Construction industry in the future.
What is 3D Printing?
Initially conceived as a tool for quickly and accurately producing product prototypes, 3D printing is a manufacturing process called additive manufacturing. This process creates an object, designed in 3D on a computer, by adding material layer by layer.
What most people think of as 3D printing is a process called stereolithography, or SLA. Patented in 1986, SLA is the oldest 3D printing technology and uses a vat of liquid polymer resin. The liquid polymer is hardened, layer by layer using a UV laser, gradually building up the whole model.
The level of detail possible using this manufacturing method has meant that it has made a huge difference in the medical, aerospace, and tool-making sectors. It made an early splash in the construction industry, before the introduction of BIM when 3D printing was used as a great way of producing scale architectural models.
The history of 3D printing in Construction
Although the technology may differ slightly by material, the process of creating a 3D item layer by layer is the same across the board. Materials that work well with the current technology include plastics, metal, ceramics, carbon fibre, chocolate and most interesting for the construction industry, concrete.
The process of 3D printing concrete is in its infancy with methods and equipment only in the testing stages, but it is already showing great potential – a house or building can be built from the ground up in a matter of days. Various methods are being trialled by different companies around the world, but many involve robot arms on rails or mobile crane systems which exude the concrete layer by layer to build the structure.
Since the first attempt to print a 3D wall in 2004, there have been numerous showcase projects, highlighting the benefits of this technology to construction. In recent years these have included:
If you want to see a 3D construction printer in action, watch this video showing the building of the Tecla houses.
As the technology improves it is hoped that it will be possible for multiple materials to be printed simultaneously, allowing metal structures, insulating foam and concrete all to be incorporated into the building at the same time. In the future, it might be imagined that 3D printers could incorporate ductwork and electrical wiring within the structure as it is constructed.
Construction giants like Vinci and BAM, are realising the potential of 3D printing and investing in the technology. The concrete 3D printing market is estimated to have been worth $56.4m in 2021 and is projected to reach $1.6 billion by 2027. So, what are the benefits of 3D printing to construction?
The benefits of 3D printing in Construction
Speed – 3D printing has been demonstrated to be faster than traditional construction, being able to build a house or office from the ground up in a matter of days, saving not only time but labour costs on site.
Waste reduction – Construction waste totals more than 1 billion tonnes a year worldwide. As 3D printing only uses the materials necessary for the design it can save a huge amount of wastage and unused materials can generally be recycled. Plus some 3D printed building projects, like the TECLA prototype house, use locally sourced materials, which has a huge benefit in terms of sustainability.
Design flexibility – 3D printing can help architects achieve complex and unconventional designs that would be impossible using traditional construction methods. This will foster a lot of innovation and creativity when it comes to building designs and may mean structures use even fewer materials to construct.
Health & Safety – Construction, particularly using concrete, can be very hazardous with tens of thousands of injuries in the UK sector alone each year. 3D printing by robots removes human error and would lead to a reduction in casualties each year if it is implemented more widely.
New markets – 3D printing may open new markets for construction, for example – in places where extreme weather hinders building schedules, modular components can be printed elsewhere and sent to the site for quick assembly.
Taking construction into space – One potential application of 3D printing in construction is the stuff of pure science-fiction. Space agencies around the world are racing to be the first to establish a permanent presence on the moon’s surface using 3D printing technology. Transporting materials to the moon to construct a base would be far too expensive and traditional construction materials would not offer enough protection against the temperature, radiation and meteorites, so various technologies are being developed to turn the lunar soil into a building material that can be utilised by giant 3D printers to construct habitats on the moon’s surface.
All of this sounds amazingly positive but what are the drawbacks that may be stopping construction companies from adopting this technology?
The challenges of adopting 3D printing in construction
High outlay costs – One of the main obstacles for construction companies considering adopting 3D printing is the cost. Purchasing the equipment is a huge expense, without factoring in maintenance and the logistics of transporting the huge robot arms to the site. It may be difficult for firms to justify the cost of investing in this technology until prices start to come down.
Qualified staff – As this is a brand-new technology, it may be difficult for construction companies to attract staff who are trained in its use. The traditional UK construction sector suffers from a skill shortage, and with the specific skills required to operate this technology, candidates are likely to be even harder to find.
Quality control – Any errors in a build caused by environmental factors or flaws in the design or raw materials could end up being very costly if not spotted quickly enough by a human being. The process will have to be constantly monitored on the ground by trained staff to stop any issues from being missed.
Most of these issues can affect many new technologies and as adoption of the technology becomes more commonplace and the processes are improved, these stumbling points may be resolved, making 3D printing a more attractive option.
It may be a long time before 3D printing on building sites becomes the sole method of housebuilding but as technology improves the cost-savings, design flexibility and sustainability benefits may be hard for a lot of companies to resist.
Article by Dom Mahoney at Gaysha Ltd, a London-based fit out & refurbishment contractor, experts in sustainable refurbishment of listed and historic buildings and operating across the residential, commercial and industrial sectors.
Gaysha Ltd, 5th Floor, 42-44 Grosvenor Gardens, London SW1W 0EB
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