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3-D Printing Reshaping Construction Industry

Conley Smith

3-D Printing Reshaping Construction Industry

Posted: January 24, 2020 | Tradewinds, Project Management

Today’s construction industry is changing and modernizing at a rapid pace. There’s no better example of this than how 3-D printing is being used to construct homes and commercial buildings.

3-D printing offers many interesting benefits—from providing more freedom to architects and designers to revolutionizing how affordable housing gets built. Many experts say 3-D printing has the potential to make the construction industry greener, improve project planning, and streamline client communications.

A Closer Look at 3-D Printing

The construction industry and 3-D printing have come a long way since 2004, when a University of South Carolina professor attempted to build the first 3-D printed wall. Today, Deloitte Global predicts that sales related to 3-D printing by large public companies will exceed $2.7 billion in 2019 and top $3 billion in 2020.

Let’s take a closer look at some of today’s 3-D printing options on the market:

• Contour Crafting involves using a large arm and nozzle to deposit and manipulate concrete during construction. Rails that support the arm and nozzle are installed all over the construction site so the arm can move freely and go where it’s needed. This process can create a square foot of wall in less than 20 seconds and a 2,000-square-foot, two-story house in less than 24 hours.

• D-Shape is a printer that uses binder-jetting, a layer-by-layer process to create durable structures. Created by Italian architect, Enrico Dini, it binds sand with inorganic seawater and a magnesium-based binder to create a stone-like material.

• Metal 3-D Printing involves a construction method called WAAM (wire arc additive manufacturing). It uses six-axis robotic arms and transforms standard industrial robots into a large-scale, mobile 3-D printer for construction. As such, different types or parts of buildings can be manufactured using this method, since the printer releases metal instead of concrete.

3-D Printing Saves Time and Money

Perhaps the most obvious benefit of 3-D printing is that it reduces time-consuming steps in the design process. It is less complicated to make changes because you can see the finished product before it’s even built. With a shorter supply chain and a quicker design process, 3-D printed structures can be completed more quickly, trimming construction time by roughly 50% to 70%.

Another selling point is that 3-D printing requires less raw material and labor. With additive rather than subtractive processes, fewer materials are used in 3-D printing than in traditional manufacturing processes. Experts say a third of all materials on a construction jobsite will end up in the trash; with 3-D printing, there could be 30% to 60% less waste.

Another win-win: 3-D printers reduce downtime on the jobsite, as printers don’t need to eat or sleep, reducing labor costs by up to 80%. Other benefits are that 3-D printing requires fewer logistical issues during transportation, so materials can be transported cheaply, easily, and safely — without requiring post-assembly work or wooden molds.

High-Profile Examples of 3-D Structures

There have been many headline-grabbing examples of 3-D printing, ranging from tiny shelters to more ambitious skyscrapers.

For example, construction-tech startup ICON, in Austin, Texas, has been touting its new 3-D printer, the Vulcan II, that can print a 2,000-square-foot family home in a matter of days, reducing costs by about 30%. Previous efforts in the U.S. and Europe have mainly resulted in printing simple shelters, and the technology has been largely one of promise, rather than reality.

By comparison, the 3,800-pound Vulcan II, which stands 11½ feet tall, can print walls with a maximum height of 8½ feet and a width of up to 28 feet, with no limits on length. In Seattle, digital manufacturing company 3Diligent Corp. is printing aluminum curtain wall components for cladding firm Walters & Wolf’s work on the 1.7-million-square-foot, mixed-use Rainier Square Tower now under construction. The $600 million tower, to be completed in 2020, will be the second tallest building in Seattle.

The building’s distinctive sloping from the fourth to the 40th floor has been custom-fabricated using 3-D printing technology to meet the 59-story building’s unique geometric look, according to 3Diligent. There are 140 V-shaped nodes that will bring together square-cut pieces of curtain wall and accommodate a different angle for the nonstructural cladding on each floor of the building.

The Future of 3-D Printing

While there is much excitement around 3-D printing, there are just as many questions. What about building codes and standards for these non-traditional buildings? To make 3-D construction widely available, governments will need to develop electrical, plumbing, structural integrity, and public safety code standards.

Since few architects and engineers have implemented 3-D printing in their building process, there is also a lack of technology to make it more scalable. For example, traditional blueprints are currently not compatible with 3-D printing software. In many cases, creating a 3-D printed building would mean starting from scratch.

It also remains to be seen whether 3-D printing will reduce the number of architects, contractors, and engineers required to design and plan a construction project — or the number of craft workers on the jobsite. Will 3-D printing revolutionize the construction industry? The jury may be out, but there are billions of dollars riding on its potential.

Want to learn more about how technology is transforming the construction industry? Don’t miss On Center’s white paper, “Is Takeoff Dead?” for a closer look at the impact of BIM on cost estimators.