The behemoth that is the global construction industry is not exactly known for its ability to adapt quickly or frequently churn out innovations. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Inefficiencies will often occur, for instance, due to high costs for construction equipment or long planning cycles, slowing industry activity. We take a look at how the construction industry could transform into a lean, responsive sector. Such a technology that has the potential to ease some of the aches of the industry and is gaining more and more traction is 3D printing.
1. Economical, ecological, and elaborate designs
Business applications of 3D printing are predicted to be even more profitable than its consumer market. Gartner, an IT research firm, estimated a compound annual growth of more than 106 percent and sales greater than US$13.4bn by 2018. An ever-growing interest in green construction and the significant savings it provides compared with traditional buildings methods (see our blog post on green construction) suggests more companies will turn to 3D printing. The use of 3D printing in construction has huge potential as an eco-friendly process, as it supports the utilisation of new (and green) materials and results in lower waste production. MIT and ETH Zürich, for instance, have looked into what is called ‘reversible concrete’ and developed an additive printing process that contests concrete as a temporary solution. They use a container wherein layers of pebbles are added. In between those string is applied in an algorithmic pattern to act as a binder. This makes it possible to create almost any geometrical shape, that can be just as easily deconstructed by simply removing the binder-string. Clean up the gravel then, and you are left without any residue. Additionally, almost all 3D printing systems allow for simple setup and operation, rapid construction, enabling reduced labor costs. 3D printing therefore not only has the potential to reduce overall construction costs, relieve managers’ consciences, but also to facilitate the production of increasingly complex architectural designs and functional integration.
Demonstration of the rock printer developed by Gramazio Kohler Research of ETH Zürich, and Self-Assembly Lab of MIT
2. Reactive adoption of 3D printers in the construction industry
With all the fuss about 3D printing, it is important to understand that while its products are relatively cheap, equipment costs remain high. For the technology to really take off in the construction industry, equipment costs will have to decrease significantly. Furthermore, a broader range of different quality materials will be required to make 3D technology more attractive. The biggest obstacle for the construction industry, however, is its tendency to sit back and wait until the technology has been tested and proven to a satisfactory degree by other industries. Hence, 3D printing is not likely to bring about immediate radical change throughout the industry, but rather experience slow and incremental incorporation. Current projections anticipate 3D printing will play a leading part in the sector by the end of this decade.
3. The current state of the art in building printing
Completing the world’s first fully 3D printed house has become somewhat a race among architects. One of 3D printing’s big masterminds is Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis of the University of Southern California, whose research focus is ‘contour crafting’. This process uses a concrete-like material to form a building’s walls via a programmed crane or scaffold. Eventually, components like electrical lines, plumbing, and wiring should be able to be printed into houses in a single iteration.
Across the industry, there have already been stories of purported success. For instance, Winsun, a Chinese construction company, claims to have 3D printed ten homes within just 24 hours. There have been serious doubts about the actual capabilities of Winsun’s technology, whose CEO Mr. Ma apparently stole and copied Professor Khoshnevis’ idea of creating a massive printer. Regardless, Mr. Ma’s attempt to capture international attention for such an achievement shows how hot the topic has become. Another architectural bureau, DUS architects of Amsterdam, is attempting to 3D print a canal house. The company’s main goal is to provide custom-designed architecture from eco-friendly, renewable materials.
4. Space – the final frontier?
3D printing would not be the revolutionary technology it is meant to be if its use in building construction were limited to applications on Earth. ESA and NASA have both worked with partners to look into the potential of additional additive manufacturing processes for building structures on the Moon or even Mars. One potential idea is to use lunar regolith as a construction material, to limit the amount of mass that needs to be transported into space. Foster + Partners, a London-based architecture firm that works with ESA, uses magnesium oxide and a binding salt to transform the lunar soil into a building material. These processes will be used to construct lunar building structures and then house the lunar occupants in inflatable modules inside of these 3D printed structures. NASA is looking into sintering, i.e. bringing a material just below its melting point with a laser to merge its particles. This way, lunar dust might be transformed into building blocks without any additional binding materials. A lunar base could then be built with these ceramic-like blocks autonomously or remotely controlled by a robot. NASA also envisions spacecraft equipped with 3D printers using the available feedstock in space. This will make it possible to produce much larger structures in space that could be fitted into a rocket.
Thus, it is only a matter of time before 3D printing finds its way into broad use in the construction industry. It will be interesting to see how architects get creative this technology on Earth and otherwise, making it a truly interplanetary technology.
Author: Laurenz Kalthoff