Once the stuff of science fiction, printing homes might soon become the way in which we build. Known in the trade as ‘additive manufacturing’, 3D printed buildings are predicted to revolutionise the construction industry in the years to come.
But What is 3D Printing Construction?
Well, it’s a bit of a mish-mash, a combination of materials science, architecture, design, computation and robotics.
But while that might sound pretty futuristic (and complicated), at heart, the technique involved is quite familiar. Using a printer that is essentially a huge robotic arm, specially formulated cement is ‘printed’ according to an architect’s design.
The cement is layered to create a wall. And it’s this layer-wise construction technique that seems familiar, because building in this way has actually been around for a long time. You probably know it best in conventional brick-laying.
But the difference with additive manufacturing is its ability to take a style of construction that has been around for years and by combining highly efficient and sustainable materials with architectural design software and robotic technology, automate it.
But is it a Better Way of Building?
In a word ‘yes!’. And for everyone involved! Take design as an example. 3D printing allows architects to be totally flexible in the shape of their designs and provides customers with greater scope to get the building they want.
For construction, 3D printing means lower on-site costs (through automation), lower logistic costs (through the ability to produce components on site) and faster build times (through the simultaneous printing of materials.)
And Does it Have Wider Benefits?
Beyond the build itself, did you know that 3D printed construction can produce up to 30 per cent less material waste, use less energy and resources, and generate fewer CO2 emissions over the entire life cycle of the product?
Plus, through its low cost approach, it is hoped that 3D printing might provide a solution to the housing crisis that has afflicted many parts of the developed world. Specifically, it could be hugely beneficial in disaster relief. Several companies are currently inventing technologies that will use local materials including dirt, mud, and sand as the base for construction, making it even easier and cheaper to construct in place.
So, What’s Happened so far?
Well, Dubai is leading the way in this area. The Dubai 3D Printing Strategy, launched in 2016, is aiming to ensure that 25 per cent of buildings in Dubai are based on 3D printing technology by 2030. The Emirate has already produced the first 3D-printed office, constructed by a robotic arm in 17 days, and printing use in Dubai’s construction industry is already increasing by around two per cent per year.
Elsewhere, in the city of Eindhoven in the Netherlands, the Dutch construction company Van Wijnen, in collaboration with Eindhoven University of Technology is applying this technology to the housing sector to create the world’s first 3D printed residential development.
Project Milestone, as it’s known, will be located in the Meerhoven district of Eindhoven. Conceived as a ‘sculpture garden’, the five homes set to be built have been designed to look like boulders with the aim of blending in to their wooded surroundings.
The first house, expected to complete in 2019, will be a single-storey, three-bedroom bungalow. This will be followed by four multi-level homes.
And In the UK?
Here at home, 3D printing within construction is still in its infancy. But there are examples, such as 6 Bevis Marks, a 16-storey commercial development in the city of London, near Aldgate and Liverpool Street stations. This project marked an industry first when 3D printed cladding ‘shrouds’ were used for the top section of the stunning canopy on the building’s roof terrace.
What Does the Future Hold?
In the UK, there are challenges to overcome for the technology to become widespread. Significant upfront investment is needed for construction to be viable on a large scale. And local authorities will have to work with the industry to understand how this new technology can satisfy planners.
But it is hoped that as the market continues to grow internationally (it is expected to reach around US$300 billion by 2025), costs will fall, which would help attract investors. And at the same time, as it becomes more commonly used, 3D printing should become as conventional for planners as the brick-layering method it seeks to replace.
And Beyond That?
What better place should there be for a futuristic technology than in space? NASA and other private corporations are committed to sending humans to Mars in the relatively near future, and 3D printing could be central to this. NASA engineers are already working on large robotic printers that would build buildings and roads before astronauts arrive. It seems that not content with providing the homes for tomorrow on Earth, 3D printing could also be providing the homes for tomorrow on Mars too!