3D printing is nothing new, and while this technology has been implemented in numerous industries including aerospace, tool making, and medicine, does it have a promising future in the construction industry? Many experts believe it does. The first attempt at a 3D printed wall happened in 2004 at the University of South Carolina.
Since then, a canal house was built using 3D printing in the Netherlands in 2014 and even a 3D printed mansion in China in 2016. And according to 3D Natives, “The concrete 3D printing market is expected to reach $56.4m in 2021.” Below we’ll look at some of the different ways this technology can be applied in the construction industry, as well as the reasons for its overall benefits.
The most common way 3D printing is currently being used in construction is in the form of concrete-pouring robotic arm extruders. With this method, the concrete is poured on site in layers and the entire mechanism is contained within a system of rails surrounding the building site which keep the robotic arm secured. For this method to work, a special type of quick-setting concrete with various additives must be used.
A similar machine is used for the process of powder binding, another form of 3D construction. An Italian architect named Enrico Dini has popularized this method. The process uses layers of sand which the machine deposits to a pre-programmed thickness, at which point the machine pours a liquid binder to harden the sand.
But 3D printing in construction is not limited to concrete and foundations. A company in the Netherlands called MX3D specializes in metal 3D printed creations. According to their website, “MX3D has a clear mission: introduce the advantages of 3D metal printing to new, high impact industries. In close collaboration with global industrial partners, our software engineers create intelligent, robust, and easy to use robotic additive manufacturing technology enabling users to 3D print large objects in metal.”
Specifically, they use a method called Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing which can produce about four pounds of 3D printed metal material per hour. The machine used is essentially a 3D robotic welder which is compatible with many different metal alloys.
The benefits of 3D printing in construction include speed, reduced waste, and the ability to achieve complex designs. Some of the aforementioned construction examples have proven that 3D printers can create the basic framework and foundations of entire homes in a matter of days. The reason waste can be reduced is because 3D printing precisely produces only as much material as is needed. According to The Construction Productivity Blog, “Worldwide construction waste currently totals more than 1 billion tons each year,” using traditional construction methods, and this number is expected to increase.
And with regard to design freedom, the sky's the limit with 3D printing. 3D models can be of use for those who are wary of the process. Because of the precision it offers, designs which would otherwise be too complex, too risky, or financially straining are possible when 3D printing is in the hands of savvy architects.