3D Printing and the Construction Industry: What’s the Potential?

Published August 8, 2016 by Whirlwind Team

 3d printing construction industry

3D printing is beginning to enter the mainstream of consumer use, but faster growth is expected in the manufacturing arena, including construction. Architectural firms have been industry early adopters of 3D printing because it is an easy, fast way to create an architectural model.

The ability to print a model that can be moved around for visual examination and to explore the design from a variety of perspectives is a boon to the building business. It is so much easier to understand the relationships between shapes and volumes with a solid figure. No matter how sophisticated a 3D rendering is on a computer screen, there is no comparison to looking at a solid object.

The rest of the construction industry has been slower to catch on even though 3D printing could eliminate many of the inefficiencies and high costs of building including the long planning cycles and the equipment expense.

However, Gartner, an IT research firm, has estimated the compound annual growth of the use of 3D printing for business applications of over 106% and sales of more than $13.4 billion.

Potential benefits

As the technology advances, there could be an array of benefits.

  • Availability of new materials, shapes, and designs
  • Lower costs
  • Construction in remote locations
  • Precision building

Flexible design

3D printing provides flexibility not available in current construction. Curvilinear shapes, rather than rectilinear, will be easier to build. Still using concrete and composite mixtures, structures can adopt shapes impossible to create with typical forms and concrete.

Printing also takes out a step; there is no need for forms or molds with printing. Form building is painstaking work that more than doubles construction time. In addition, it can be difficult to ensure the concrete part that comes out of the form or mold retains strength.

Researchers are now experimenting with concrete extrusion for precision work.

Lower costs

3D printing could potentially lower costs for the overall structure and parts. First, there is less waste in 3D printing, therefore less to dispose of or haul off. Next, labor costs would be lower because of the fast and easy erection., ideal for poverty-stricken regions of the world.

If you had the 3D printer onsite, you could print anything you needed without requiring an order or waiting for transportation. Printing parts can automatically include space for utilities: pipe, wiring, and other added materials. Eventually, utility materials can be printed right into the part.

Remote location construction

What is the remotest location you can think of?

The European Space Agency and NASA are both studying the feasibility of 3D printing for building on the moon. The plan is to use local materials, in this case, lunar soil, as a building material.

It would no longer be necessary to lift or transport heavy building modules from earth or a space station. The only large piece of equipment would be the 3D printer, and you would need a binder for the lunar soil.

Expansion could continue smoothly without relying on shuttles or other vehicles to bring in steel or other materials to construct the next phase.

Precision building

In 3D printing, the file is passed from the computer to the printer without stopping for human interpretation. The file is easily and quickly translated into a solid object.

With no human intervention, any problems arise from the design; otherwise, everything fits together like Legos.

Printing 3D homes and buildings

As we stated earlier, there are already a few people working on developing the appropriate substrate and a good printer to use it in.

Contour Crafting System by Dr. Behrockh Khoschnevis

Dr. Khoshnevis works at the University of Southern California where has been pioneering 3D printing for over 15 years. He and his team have developed a fast-drying concrete mix to use in place of plastic.

They hope to install a printer at the jobsite where it will build parts up out of layers of concrete and includes the wiring, plumbing, and painting in one run. Eventually, an entire home could be printed within 24 hours or so. And it would be affordable.

World’s Advanced Saving Project (WASP)

An Italian team is working with a scaled up version of their Delta 2040 printer; scaled up as in 39 feet high. The United Nations estimates that there is a minimum daily requirement of 100,000 homes over the next 15 years to keep up with the world's population growth. WASP is hoping to help out with low-cost housing.

MX3D

A Dutch company, MX3D is working on a direct 3D metal printer. They used a commercially available industrial robot equipped with an advanced welding apparatus.

The print file allows automated construction without the need for support; the structure is built in mid-air. There are several ways this could be used in infrastructure.

Reversible concrete

Take pebbles, layer them alternating with special string laid down via an algorithm to act as a binder, and you can create any shape you want. If you don’t like it, or you are ready to get rid of it, just take away the string and clean up the pebbles. Easy deconstruction, easy clean-up.

Challenges ahead

None of this will be here tomorrow. At least one manufacturer has copied the tech from another company, and it doesn’t work as well as it should. The 3D printing system can only lay down one type of substrate, so elements like windows, doors, joints, finishes, and utilities still need to be installed after the shell is complete. You may be able to print a simple structure that doesn’t need these elements.

3D printers are expensive as all get. Add in experimental extrusion materials and price jumps even higher. Plus, researchers need to come up with a variety of materials so those elements in the last paragraph can be fabricated into the structure.

As far as safety and reliability, there are no studies showing how a 3D printed structure would behave during a seismic event or in high winds.

The fact of the matter is that 3D printing is coming, but you will probably see incremental growth of the technology for construction purposes. The industry likes to take a wait and see attitude towards anything new. The technology will have to prove itself before it will be adopted by the mainstream.

Still, watching a 39-foot high printer layer up a building would be a sight, wouldn't it?

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