How 3D Printing is transforming the construction industry?

The construction industry, considered to be conservative and slow to adapt to innovations, started to change with the help of digital fabrication technologies. In the last decade, researchers have been experimenting new techniques for building components or entire structures, via 3D printing. New types of 3D printers enter to the market, but the ones used in the construction industry are the large-scale 3D printers which are capable of 3D printing metal and concrete. The aim is to print large structures and realize complex projects. In the construction industry the movement is gaining place and taking the attention of both the public and private sectors. Labor costs, speed and eco-friendly processes are just few ways how 3D printing is revolutionizing construction.

What are the main advantages of 3D printing in construction?

  • Lower cost: 

3D printing technology can save up to 60% of building materials and 50%-80% of manpower which improves work efficiency and helps to reduce the costs. This could be especially applicable and helpful in 3rd world countries, where better homes could be built for less cost.

  • Environment friendly:

3D printing significantly reduces the amount of waste material created in production. The right amount of filament is used in creating the models each time, meaning you only use how much material you need. Many of the materials used to print objects can be made from recycled material and the created designs themselves can also be recycled.

  • Fast delivery time:

In an industry where construction delays can be extremely disruptive and costly, 3D printing offers new opportunities to accelerate delivery and reduce risk. By operating 24/7 and by reducing onsite glitches and hence delays, 3D printers can reduce construction times by 50%-70%.

  • Design flexibility:

With the help of 3D printers, architects are more flexible in the shape of their designs, no constrains of technical and structural aspects. They can realize even complex forms using non-linear shapes and curved walls which the conventional construction methods were not capable of building before.

What are the main application areas?

3D printing has started to be used to print tabletop scale models for architecture companies before BIM ( Building Information Modeling ). It was an easy and fast method compared to traditional way which required more time and hand-craft. In the 1990s some companies started using 3D printing to produce modular components of full-scale projects. By the 2000s, these applications were in full swing and getting set to transform the entire industry. In the past years application areas of 3D printing has evolved a lot. You can 3D print building components, molds, entire buildings, bridges or interior design objects.

3D Printed villas in Shanghai by WinSun

So far the majority of applications were smaller-scale buildings and especially single-story houses except WinSun, a Chinese 3D printing company, which has developed the first continuous 3D printer for construction. The company printed the first batch of 10 houses in 2013. Using a special ink made of cement, sand and fiber, together with a proprietary additive, the printer adds layer by layer to print walls and other components in its factory. The walls are then assembled on site. Using up to 50% demolition waste and producing zero waste, the technology is environmental friendly. The impact on delivery time is even more impressive. Construction of a two-story 1,100 sqm villa take one day of printing, two days of assembly, with internal bar structures erected in advance, requiring three workmen only. According to the company 3D printing technology can save up to 60% of building materials and 50%-80% of manpower which improves work efficiency and helps to reduce the costs.

World’s first 3D printed office building by WinSun

Winsun is also the first company to 3D print an office building which was opened in Dubai in May 2016. The entire structure was printed using a giant cement printer, then assembled on site. Printing took 17 days and was installed on in 2 days. Subsequent work on the building services, interiors, and landscape took approximately 3 months.

Buildings or building components are not the only areas of application. You can even print a bridge in metal. The most famous project is the one of the Dutch start-up MX3D who is 3D printing a fully functional stainless steel bridge to be installed on one of the oldest and most famous canals in the center of Amsterdam. MX3D equiped industrial multi-axis robots with 3D tools and developed the software to control them. What distinguishes this technology from traditional 3D printing methods is that the printing is done by 6-axis robot arms. This technique gives the design flexibility for architects and engineers and has huge potential to reduce the amount of material needed to make large structures. The printing of the pedestrian bridge is scheduled to be finalized early 2018.

Another application area of 3D printing in construction is the 3D printed molds which gives freedom to architects and designers to make their marks by unique shapes and forms. One of the well-known system in this area is the “FreeFAB system” a construction technique operated by the Australian-European contractor Laing O’Rourke. A giant robotic 3D printer, with a build volume of 30 x 3.5 x 1.5 meters, prints large molds from a specially designed wax; those molds are then used to cast concrete panels like the double-curved wall panels of London’s Crossrail project. The technique is also more eco-friendly and less wasteful than conventional mold-making technologies. FreeFAB wax molds can be melted and the wax re-used again and again.

London Crossrail Project

3D printed wax molds

3D printing technology is evolving fast, we see impressive examples in the construction industry, however there is still a long way to go for most building constructions. First, the laws and authorizations must be modified according to this new technology.  Also, 3D printers must be movable to be used anywhere. In short term we can expect more and more building components to be built with 3D printing as well as printed molds. It’s sure that the buildings of future will not look like the ones of today. Architects, engineers and workers will have to adapt to this transformation and learn to master well these techniques of 3D printing. Even though there are still some challenges to overcome we can still be positive about the future of construction 3D printing.