Three-dimensional (3D) printed construction is an additive, layer-by-layer construction method that produces 3D objects from a digital file. It is an interdisciplinary practice that incorporates materials science, architectural, structural, mechanical, and software engineering disciplines. For 3D-printed construction to be considered a viable construction method in the long term, it must be competitive with conventional methods and both useful to and usable by its end users.
In the construction industry, 3D printing can be used to create construction components or to ‘print’ entire buildings. Construction is well-suited to 3D printing as much of the information necessary to create an item will exist as a result of the design process, and the industry is already experienced in computer-aided manufacturing. The recent emergence of building information modeling (BIM) in particular may facilitate greater use of 3D printing. Construction 3D printing may allow faster and more accurate construction of complex or bespoke items as well as lowering labor costs and producing less waste. It might also enable construction to be undertaken in harsh or dangerous environments not suitable for a human workforce such as in space.
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? So I would like to explain how 3D has been already making waves in construction and what the future looks like.
3D printing initially was utilized for quickly and accurately creating prototype parts. As additive processes improved, however, their viable uses began to expand. Before 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:
- In 2004, a USC professor attempted to 3D print a wall in what’s widely accepted as the technology’s first entry into construction.
- In 2014, a full canal house built using 3D printing was completed in Amsterdam.
- In 2016, a 3D-printed mansion was completed in China.
- Also in 2016, the Dubai Future Foundation built its Office of the Future via 3D printing, a major milestone for the technology in the commercial construction sector. The fully functioning 2,700-square foot building was built by a large 3D printer that measured 120 x 40 x 20 feet. Construction took just 17 days.
Today, the 3D printing construction market is quickly growing, expected to reach $1.5 billion by 2024. 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.”