3D printing is not just a new fad or recent craze. It’s been around since the 1980’s. Multiple industries are embracing 3D printing to avoid a myriad of supply chain issues. Several countries, are using 3D printing to address the housing crisis. NASA is even exploring the use of 3D printing to create structures on the Moon. Soon 3D printing will be coming to a construction project near you.
Today’s 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, drastically differs from the Xerox copiers of old, with relation to construction. Printers are replaced by one or more self-moving computer-controlled gantry systems on rails or robotic arms on motorized tracks. Ink is replaced by fiber reinforced concrete, resin- based wood emulsion, or super-heated liquified metals. End-products are no longer 2-dimensional or 2D sheets of paper measuring 8½” x 11”, but rather 3-dimensional or 3D objects of unlimited size and shape. Although printing may seem like a misnomer, 3D objects are built-up using successive layers of homogeneous materials, much like a stack of 2D sheets of printed paper.
The most common characteristic of 3D printed construction projects is the use of a computer aided design or CAD process and Building Information Modeling or BIM, guiding, and controlling the gantry system or robotic arm. While the movement of gantry systems is generally limited by the location of the tracks it moves upon, robotic arms move about more freely based upon dimensional requirements and GPS coordinates. The second most common characteristic is the formula for the material used to form successive layers that form the product to be 3D printed. The material must be capable of being extruded from a nozzle, suitable to maintain its shape under its own weight and those of successive layers once placed since no forms or templates are used, and cure rapidly after placement, but not before being placed. Finally, the most common characteristic of placing construction materials is through the extrusion method, whereby partially liquified materials are prepared, stored, and then extruded through a nozzle to place successive self-supporting layers to form the desired object. The successive layers may vary in width but are generally less than 1” thick, with the lesser thicknesses reducing the corrugated appearance on the surface of the cured object or component.
Until recently, the construction industry gained little benefit from the computer age when compared to other industries. During the last half of the twentieth century, productivity in agriculture increased by a factor of 1600%, and manufacturing by 800%, while construction remained dependent upon skilled labor and productivity has shown little change. While the construction industry has benefited from CAD, BIM, and modularization, productivity remains relatively the same. However, the growing shortage of skilled labor, increased shipping costs, and the supply chain interruptions of materials manufactured in offshore markets has greatly bolstered the desire for 3D printing options. Unlike traditional skilled labor, 3D printing works 24/7, on or off-site, to solve each of these problems, in addition to multiple other benefits. Experience shows that 3d printing may improve safety, reduce labor costs, accelerate schedules, stop human-error, promote greater creativity, support sustainability, lessen waste, and increase productivity. Consequently, the global marketplace for 3D printing is expected to double in just seven years between 2021 and 2028.
The use of 3D printing has already made significant contributions to certain sectors of the construction industry. For example, 3D printing in the commercial and industrial sectors, involving mass quantities of homogeneous materials, such as concrete and steel, can represent as much as 80% of the total costs. In contrast, 3D printing in building construction, typically represents no more than 45% of total construction costs, primarily due to non-homogeneous construction materials, including interior finishes, exterior finishes, windows, doors, and MEP trades.
While the US pioneered the concept of 3D printing in construction, other countries have been quicker to expand upon its use in construction. Europe, especially the Netherlands, leads the world in the number of projects completed using 3D printing. However, the Middle East has made a huge commitment to the future of 3D printing, with Dubai pledging 25% of all new construction will employ 3D printing technology no later than 2030. Meanwhile, the largest expansion for the use of 3D printing on construction projects appears to be occurring in the Pacific Asian marketplace where population density and the lack of skilled labor appear to be the greatest.
But perhaps, the most intriguing use of 3D printing in the construction industry is being pioneered by NASA. In 2020, NASA awarded a government contract entitled “Small Business Innovation Research” or SBIR to research the possibilities of a space-based construction project on the moon. The project known as “Project Olympus” will develop lunar structures constructed by 3D printing using native materials readily available upon the lunar landscape. Hence, 3D printing may become the future of not only the construction market upon earth but also in the heavens above.