One of the most eye-catching technological innovations in recent years is 3D printing — a technology that has numerous potential uses in multiple industries and in particular has great potential for use in construction.
3D printing is a manufacturing process that uses layers to create a three dimensional object from a digitally created model. The digital model on which the object is based is initially created using a computer program; information relating to this model is then transferred to a 3D printer [pictured] which is capable of working with a number of different materials.
While 3D printing has been possible since the late 1980s, in recent years the technology has experienced an increase in affordability, allowing more businesses and even individuals to access it. 3D printing has also significantly developed in capacity, allowing for more complex and potentially revolutionary construction based applications.
Given the widespread implications for manufacturing practices, 3D printing has been continually cited in recent years as possessing great potential for construction companies. It has been stated that 3D printing has potential for the creation of new and complex designs that would be impossible using purely conventional methods, while also allowing for the creation of totally unique components to function in any scenario.
Greater utilization of 3D printers by construction firms could reduce labour costs and also increase efficiency, given the speed at which an object can go from the design phase to being produced. Another potential benefit cited is the waste reduction, as the precise amount of materials required can be formulated by the computer program prior to the printing phase.
Despite the vast potential of 3D printers for the construction industry, there are still a number of key issues preventing greater utilization in the present. Chief among these is the financial viability of using the technology within the construction process.
Equipment costs for 3D printing, despite falling significantly in recent years, remain at restrictively high levels for the majority of companies. There is a very high initial outlay when purchasing the necessary equipment, and at present this remains a key obstacle for greater utilization of this technology in the construction industry.
Nevertheless there are now a number of firms taking advantage of the technology and an increasing number of 3D printing related companies who are aiming to make the technology more affordable and applicable in construction related processes.
A Key provider of 3D printing technology and products includes American company 3D Systems, which currently has an annual revenue of $666M. 3D Systems is one of the few 3D printing companies that have attempted to consolidate many aspects of 3D printing under one brand, and they consequently offer a number of products capable of various industrial and commercial applications.
3D Systems has worked with the civil engineering firm Ramboll, who purchased the ProJet 460 colour Jet Printer when it was the only high-definition, multi-colour 3D printer on the market, and subsequently stated that this resulted in an advantage over their competitors in terms of their ability to utilise 3D printing technology in projects.
Another major provider of 3D printing technology is Stratasys, an American company with an annual revenue of $696M. Stratasys has partnered with a number of construction and architecture firms, including the New York-based international architecture firm Rietveld Architects. 3D printing has proved particularly useful in the model production stage of construction, as it allows for the creation of more accurate physical models.
Modelzium purchased the Objet Eden350TM 3D printer from Stratasys, and Modelzium estimates that 3D printing has cut the cost of its model production stage by roughly 30% to 50%, while also increasing the accuracy of the models. 3D printers also produce more accurate models at a greater speed, meaning a reduction in the time before actual construction can begin. Therefore, Modelzium have since stated that the adoption of 3D printers within their design phase has had a large impact on their ability to meet client demands.
While the adoption of 3D printing technology within construction is proving to be a slow process, the high number of potential uses for this technology explains why it has received such substantial attention.
A leading pioneer in the industry is Professor Khoshnevis from the University of Southern California, who is currently developing a technique called ‘contour crafting’, which uses a programmed crane to develop walls with a material similar to concrete. An ongoing major project, which is demonstrating the potential of 3D printing for construction, is currently taking place in the Netherlands.
DUS Architects in Amsterdam are developing a 3D printed canal house and have combined an international team of partners in a project they hope may eventually revolutionise the building sector. The canal house contains 13 separate rooms, and aims to demonstrate the potential of the technology by highlighting different techniques. The canal house is printed by a large 3D printer called the KamerMaker, which was developed by DUS Architects.
These examples highlight the broad scope of potential uses for 3D printing within construction and as the technology develops and the equipment costs reduce, its adoption will undoubtedly increase. While its utilization among construction firms is likely to primarily be among those that focus on the manufacturing stage, the future adoption of 3D printing technology will have implications for the sector as a whole. The construction firms that utilize this technology prior to their competitors are likely to experience significant advantages, if they are willing to make the necessary investment and adjust their current processes.
* For more information on the construction industry, visit the Construction Intelligence Center.