Is 3D Printing the Future of Construction?


3D printing is getting significant attention in the construction industry.

The technology, which has been talked about for years, is delivering tangible results. Designers are now printing buildings and building components, yet the technology is not yet ready for mass production for mainstream construction.

One of the major advantages of 3D printing is that you can create complex structures which are unique in form. There is a significant amount of research being undertaken on the topic. Here we look at what 3D printing has delivered and some of the research undertaken.

3D model printing services and 3D printers are widely available for sale to the public. At the 2015 CitA BIM Gathering, the Irish Construction Industry got to see what 3D model printing can do with Dublin-based Hackett 3D showing the services and products the company offers. The printing of building structures works on a similar principle, except with a large industrial printer and a material mix – the “ink”.

Research on metal 3D printing for manufacturing has been undertaken at Waterford Institute of Technology. How long before prototype research on 3D printed buildings is undertaken in Ireland? “Concrete design for 3D printing” is currently a PhD research topic in University College Dublin. Will contractors be printing buildings here in the next decade?

The advantages of 3D printing in construction include the ability to make customised structures, projects generating less waste, using recyclable materials, requiring fewer materials and less transport of materials to their fixed position on site. Printers can be used in factories and components delivered to site. If used on site this technology requires the assembly of a frame and the security of components. The industry is currently adapting to the digital revolution with BIM and other technologies, as well as there being a focus on Lean and Green Construction. From literature and other media, it seems 3D printing could complement these philosophies.

Over the past decade, researchers in the School of Civil and Building Engineering at Loughborough University have been developing 3D printing technology for the construction industry.

3D Printing at Loughborough University:

If used on location, the frame of a 3D printer takes some time to erect. The video below shows a time-lapse of the assembly of parts for a large 3D concrete printer. This was for an Eindhoven University of Technology PhD project titled “3D Printing of Sustainable Concrete Structures”.

This month a project in Dubai got the attention of building professionals and enthusiasts. This is titled as the World’s first 3D printed office.

”Dubai Launches World’s First ‘Functional’ 3D Printed Office Building”:

Other buildings, such as houses have been printed using recycled materials in Shanghai, China, and elsewhere. “3D printers print ten houses in 24 hours”:

The “ink” or material used in the video is made from recycled rubble, fibreglass, steel, cement and binder, and takes 1 day to dry. If you are interested in more examples of 3D printed buildings, we recommend you check out the work of WinSun Decoration Design Engineering. This company has produced a number of 3D printed buildings, which have brought international attention. In Amsterdam, DUS Architects has done notable work to popularise 3D printing.

3D printing has also been used in the energy and engineering industries:

With the growth in global population, the need for housing is much discussed. It is said that 3D printing could produce mass affordable homes at a low cost. However, in the past new construction methods have also been identified as potentially solving housing problems.

Architectural history and construction history have detailed how difficult it was to build great complex structures in the past and the craftsmanship and labour involved in construction. With building professionals looking to off-site construction and building assembly modelling for the future of construction, will 3D printing offer great advantages? Will it revolutionise architecture? It is early days for 3D printing in construction yet its advantages are being acknowledged, along with the requirements for using the technology.

BIM and technology experts tells us that 3D printing is advantageous and interesting, but not yet ready for mainstream construction. However, interest in the technology is expected to grow with the popularity of recent projects.

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