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3-D Printing: New Tech Hits the Construction Industry

Builders, engineers and architects across the globe are embracing 3-D printing technology as a new way to design and construct buildings. With reduced labor and material costs, and the ability to construct buildings in a matter of days, rather than months or years, it’s a clear why construction professionals are looking to utilize the new technology – but could 3-D printing be too good to be true for the mainstream construction industry?

While 3-D printing or additive manufacturing has just begun to take off over the past three to four years, the process has existed for over three decades. Several different 3-D printing processes have been invented since the late 1970s, but the printers were originally large, expensive, and highly limited in what they could produce – a far cry from today’s 3-D printing capabilities.

Technology professionals and innovative building companies have worked together to create designs and custom printers, which have been used to build structures such as residential model homes and other buildings. The creation of a 3-D-printed object is achieved by laying down layer upon layers of material until the entire object is formed, producing a tangible replica of the digital model.  

Case studies

3-D printing of homes and buildings is not ready to go commercial yet, but the technology has been developed to the point where full-sized testing has been accomplished. In fact, Chinese company WinSun Decoration Design Engineering Co. (WinSun) first showcased its innovative skills and the capabilities of 3-D printing in 2014 – constructing 10 houses in less than 24 hours, each costing just $5,000. Although the houses aren’t initially equipped with plumbing, electrical wiring or insulation, they are designed to accommodate the addition of these systems after construction.

Most recently, WinSun used the same technology in 2015 to construct two buildings that represent new frontiers for 3-D printed construction: a five-story apartment block and a 1,100 square meter mansion complete with internal and external decoration.

WinSun's 3D-printed building in Suzhou industrial park. Photograph: Imaginechina/Corbis

The WinSun buildings were created using a custom-made giant printer, measuring 6.6 meters wide by 10 meters tall that took the company 12 years to develop. Printing horizontal layers of “ink” – a mixture of glass fiber, steel, cement, hardening agents and recycled construction waste – the machine creates several large building sections that are then assembled together to create the final structure, much like other prefabricated materials are used to create smaller scale projects within a building.

A villa built by 3D printing technology is seen in the Suzhou industrial park. – PHOTOS: XINHUA

Other companies, institutions and designers around the globe are planning to use 3-D printing to push the limits of the new technology and oust traditional construction methods, including researchers at MIT who are looking to print a pavilion by imitating the way a silkworm builds its cocoon. UK architects Softkill Design are working to create a single-story dwelling with a fibrous structure resembling bone growth and DUS Architects in Amsterdam announced a project to print, room by room, a canal house in the city using a homemade portable printer located inside an upended shipping container.

Impact on Construction and Housing Markets

Despite the many ways 3-D printing could enhance architectural design and capabilities, as well as reduce costs for construction companies, homeowners and businesses, there are a few possible pitfalls:

  1. Job Loss: Because 3-D printing requires fewer hands on deck, it has the potential to put a lot of construction workers out of business. Jobs that once required skilled laborers, such drywall installation, bricklaying or other highly trained craftsmen, are essentially replaced by a printer.
  2. Material Quality: Utilizing new materials without insights into long-term health could put us in a similar situation to that of asbestos – a once common building material that was later found to pose serious safety hazards.
  3. Material Diversity: Traditional buildings are made from different materials: concrete, drywall, steel beams, etc. However, with 3-D printing, materials used per project might be limited due to a printers’ inability to produce designs with multiple materials.  
  4. Transportation and Storage: The larger the project, the larger the printer and volume of materials needed, which could make transportation and on-site storage an issue.
  5. High Risk of Error: While human error is always a possibility on traditional job sites, when it comes to 3-D printing, any errors in the digital model can result in problematic issues on-site during the printing and construction phase. If the problem isn’t caught in time, materials could be lost and undermine the initial cost savings.
  6. Trickle-Down Effect: With their products no longer required for building, not only will the construction industry see job loss, but conventional product manufacturing companies and equipment rental companies could suffer as well.

Whether the future use of 3-D printing will be to create new aesthetic structures or to provide low-cost housing, it is clear that the technology will change the construction industry forever. In spite of the concerns, 3-D printing’s use in construction shows no signs of slowing down. If companies continue to innovate and test the technology, we may someday live in printed homes and work in printed skyscrapers. 

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