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? Below, we’ll explore how 3D has been already making waves in construction and what the future looks like.
A History of 3D Printing in Construction
Before we get into a history of 3D printing in the construction industry, it’s first important to take a step back in time to the origins of 3D printing itself.
3D printing’s roots date back to the mid-1980s when stereolithography, or SLA, was conceived. SLA works as a high-powered laser and turns a liquid resin into a solid material. SLA is an additive technology, which means it involves creating a product from the ground up in a layer-by-layer fashion. Today, SLA is still one of the most popular 3D printing technologies, though 3D printing is generally considered any technology that creates parts in an additive way. Some other popular additive technologies include selective laser sintering (SLS), fused deposition modeling (FDM) and direct metal deposition (DMD).
3D printing initially was utilized for quickly and accurately creating prototype parts. As additive processes improved, however, its viable uses began to expand. Prior to 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.
The Growth of 3D Printing in Construction
While 3D printing’s emergence in the construction industry is ongoing, certain building aspects are poised for more growth than others.
3D Printing Concrete
Concrete, specifically, is one of them. In fact, the concrete 3D printing market is projected to be valued at $56.4 million by 2021, growth that’s largely spurred by the amount of new, innovative projects that are being planned in construction. 3D printing in concrete doesn’t appear just to be a grassroots movement, either. In February 2017, Vinci, one of France’s leading construction firms, purchased a stake in XtreeE, a French startup company that specializes in 3D printing concrete structural elements.
In 2019, BAM opened Europe’s first concrete printing centre in the Netherland. The factory has already been tasked to deliver several 3D printed bridges throughout the region. Watch the video below to see how BAM and Saint-Gobain are changing the future of infrastructure with sustainable, scalable, and affordable 3D concrete printing solutions.
Though 3D printing concrete shows great potential, it’s worth noting that the overall technology when it comes to the concrete material is still relative in its infancy. In fact, most 3D printers that process concrete are still being tested and tweaked today, and aren’t yet designed for manufacturing purposes. However, as we can see from the video above, the potential is there to additively build everything from foundations to walls to individual cinder blocks to bridges in a faster, more affordable, and more environmentally-friendly manner as the technology continues to progress.
The Benefits of 3D Printing in Construction
Just why is 3D printing gaining so much buzz in the construction sector? As the industry faces increasing pressure to meet tight schedules and budgets, companies are looking to new innovations to help fill the gaps. 3D printing in construction offers a significant potential to increase efficiency in the building sector, including the following ways.
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.”
Worldwide construction waste currently totals more than 1 billion tons each year, and according to Construction Dive, this number is expected to double by 2025. While 3D printing won’t be able to solve all of the construction waste problems, it can help. This is largely because 3D printing is an additive manufacturing process that only uses as much material as is necessary for creating a structure. When paired with other waste-reducing processes and building methods like prefabrication and lean construction, the potential of a waste-zero building seems all the more likely.