3D printing: Is the construction sector catching up?

Place like Dubai are leading the adoption of 3D printing in construction



A yellow-colour one-storey house in Russia generated news headlines across the world in March this year for two reasons. First, the house was 3D printed, and second – more interestingly – the builders said the walls of the building were printed and painted in just 24 hours.

Dubai too gained global attention in May last year when it opened what it claimed was the world’s first 3D printed office. Located adjacent to Emirates Towers, the building is spread across 250 square metres and was constructed using a special mixture of cement and a set of building materials designed and made in the UAE and the United States.

Later in the year, Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) also awarded a contract for the design and construction of the UAE’s first building to be fully printed on-site and the first 3D printed laboratory in the world.

The laboratory, part of the Research & Development Centre at the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, will be used to conduct research on drones and 3D printing technology.

Worldwide, the 3D printing industry has been booming. A recent report by technology consultancy IDC forecast that global spending on 3D printing would witness a five-year compound annual growth rate of 22.3 per cent, with revenues reaching $28.9bn in 2020.

While the automotive, aerospace and healthcare sectors are seeing the biggest growth, home printing is slowly starting to account for a portion of the market, the firm said.

The uptake of 3D printing in the construction industry, however, is currently at a nascent stage says Dominic Thasarathar, industry strategist for construction, energy and natural resources at Autodesk.

“I think right now the industry is in its early stages. The technology is certainly advancing – we have all seen the early examples of 3D printing of concrete, which is a relatively easy material to work with. But there are other examples – such as 3D printing in steel,” he says.

Challenges along the way

Even as the use of 3D printing gains traction in the construction industry, there are some major hurdles that the sector faces.

One key issue, according to Fahmi Al-Shawwa, CEO of Immensa Technology Labs – a UAE based 3D printing company – is the commercial viability of construction related 3D printing.

The number one challenge is cost, agrees Thasarathar. “Who is going to pay for the investment and innovation? Traditionally, construction companies have relatively limited budgets in the way they are capitalised to invest,” he explains.

Research is another important component – particularly in terms of materials. “Obviously the bigger the buildings are, the higher the issue is around structural performance, safety, and so on,” he adds.

A third factor to consider, according to Thasarathar, is whether clients are “willing and wanting” to see that type of delivery method on their projects – because that is needed to drive a supply chain that will scale to meet demand.

Another key challenge is the existing building codes and legislation relating to the industry, says Al-Shawwa.

“These have to develop in line with the technology and incorporate specifications and guidelines that take into consideration the new methods and materials that enable 3D printing to be used in the construction sector,” he explains.

“Regarding cost and viability, this will rapidly change and we will see cost of integrating 3D printing on large scale for contracting drop as the application of the technology gains momentum,” he adds.

Thasarathar also predicts that costs will see similar declines to other equipment in the construction sector.

“Because of the volumes required, we will see the rise of factory environments where perhaps even the traditional building product chain will supply themselves with that capability,” he states.

A softer concern that some industry insiders point to is the change required in consumer mind-set – particularly in the Gulf region. Many house owners prefer the ‘solid’ feel of concrete and stone rather than the mixture of materials that 3D printing uses.

“I’d say any new technology always has that issue,” says Thasarathar. “The interesting thing I have noticed is that the end client, whether the home owner or occupier, is becoming very environmentally aware. And if you think about the levels of waste associated with construction and the promise that 3D printing has to really reduce that, I think we will reach a tipping point where the end client or occupant will drive demand for that new approach,” he argues.

While Immensa’s Al-Shawwa admits that his company encounters resistance from clients for adopting new technologies related to 3D printing, he suggests that this is more prevalent in the mechanical and spare parts division.

“When it comes to the construction sector, we have seen a large interest from private sector companies seeking our 3D printing services and to jointly develop solutions for their construction and building material businesses,” he states.

That’s partly because most of the 3D manufacturing technologies that are being tested in the construction sector revolve around concrete as the primary material.

Another reason for the strong growth in demand is the push from the local government to adopt the technology, he adds.

Strong government push

The Dubai government launched its 3D printing strategy in April last year, with the aim of helping the emirate achieve its ambitious goal of becoming the world’s 3D printing hub by 2030.

The strategy – which focuses on the medical and construction sectors in Dubai, as well as consumer products – seeks to increase productivity while reducing labour by 70 per cent, costs by 90 per cent, and time by 80 per cent.

In the construction sector, the strategy will focus on lighting products, bases and foundations, construction joints, facilities and parks, buildings for humanitarian causes and mobile homes.

Also, the strategy – based on Dubai Municipality’s regulations – requires every new building in Dubai to be at least 2 per cent 3D printed starting from 2019, with the percentage gradually increasing to 25 per cent by 2025.

“This initiative is a driving force, pushing public and private companies to invest their resources in finding ways to incorporate 3D printing into their current construction business lines,” says Al-Shawwa.

“We collaborate directly with construction and technology companies all over Europe that are increasing their investment and fast-tracking the development of their 3D printing capabilities for construction because of Dubai’s initiative,” he adds.

Autodesk’s Thasarathar is also confident that Dubai will attain its goal for two main reasons – its pro-innovation approach, and because Dubai is “building a lot of stuff”.

Laying the bricks

While government support is certainly providing an impetus to the industry, certain other drivers are also strongly promoting the integration of 3D printing into the construction sector, according to Thasarathar.

The first is improved productivity when compared to traditional methods.

“Construction has a challenge in terms of its level of productivity and adoption of technology,” he says.

The second is reduction of waste, making 3D printing more environmentally friendly. “Construction, by no fault of its own – just the way it is structured – leads to a lot of waste.”

And the third is a better build environment. “If we can build things with the flexibility of not being constrained to standard designs, it should mean we are building targeted structures.”

Thasarathar also rubbishes any fears of job-losses in the construction industry due to the adoption of the new technology.

“I think it’s going to mean job creation – especially if you look at the way in which technology has changed other industries.

“We will get a lot of new jobs and the great thing is because the technology is democratic – easily available and is priced low – I think a lot of small organisations will crop up such as experts in bespoke house design, multi-storey apartments, and other areas.”

The future

Looking ahead, the entire construction industry is gearing up for an overhaul, with economics set to improve substantially thanks to better lifecycle costs and lifecycle value modelling – which is possible from the availability of predictive data.

“Construction is going to become less risky since the unknowns are going to be diminished,” forecasts Thasarathar.

Also, rather than just being a service industry where operators only ‘build something’, they will soon be more like partners with the end clients, he adds.

Specific to 3D printing, he admits it is impossible to predict when the technology will become commonplace in construction.

“The first step is proof of concepts and with the 3D printed house in China for example [built in 2015], we know it is available.

“The next part is looking into aspects like: Are the aesthetics suitable for the end user? Do they like the look? We know that this is certainly improving on a daily basis.

“So, I would be surprised that if in 10 years’ time there isn’t some organisation offering off-the-shelf 3D printed single family houses. For the multi-storey type environments – probably a bit further out,” he adds.

With Dubai placing such a strong emphasis on the development of 3D printing in the coming years, that prediction could be just the tip of the construction iceberg.

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