Technology & Innovation

5 Ways 3D Printing is Transforming Construction

5 Ways 3D Printing is Transforming Construction

From its origins in the 1980s, 3D printing is accelerating into the mainstream with Gartner predicting that around 456,000 3D printers would be shipped in 2017; more than double the 219,000 shipped in 2016, and a fraction of the expected 6.7 million to be shipped by 2020. McKinsey places the value of 3D printing at up to US$550 billion a year by 2025.

In the construction industry the movement is gaining pace and the attention of both the public and private sectors. Markets and Markets predicts that the market size for 3D concrete printing will grow from US$24.5 million in 2015 to US$56.4 million by 2021. The Singapore Government – through the Singapore Centre for 3D Printing – is investigating how to build public housing through the use of 3D printers while the United Arab Emirates is doubling down to become a leading player in 3D printing globally. They recently launched a Smart Buildability Index to drive better practices in the 3D construction of buildings and integration of smart components, such as connected sensors, for greater functionality and sustainability. Their aim is to employ 3D printing technology in 25% of Dubai’s buildings by 2030.

From the building of components to entire structures, how is 3D printing creating opportunities for the construction industry?

  1. Lower Cost

According to the International Construction Cost Survey, 3D printing can potentially reduce total cost of construction by as much as 60%. Last year Dubai laid claim to building the first 3D printed office building. The 2500 square foot structure was built by 18 people – one to monitor the printer, seven to install the building components onsite and 10 to look after the mechanical and electrical components. With printing taking 17 days and onsite construction only two, they estimate labour cost savings to be in the vicinity of 50%.

  1. Faster Delivery

In an industry where construction delays can be extremely disruptive and costly, 3D printing offers new opportunities to accelerate delivery and reduce risk. Unlike their analogue counterparts, 3D printers work (almost) around the clock, won’t take union action and are less susceptible to errors and safety risks during the construction process.

Contour Crafting, developed by Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis from the University of Southern California, looks to automate the construction of an entire building in a single run rather than pre-fabricating components and building onsite. Their technology could cover not just the building of the structure but the installation of components like plumbing, insulation and electrics. Even wall painting and tiling could be automated. Imagine a 2,500 square foot home built in less than a day!

This benefits of speed may also have other life-saving consequences, for example, in disaster relief. A group of researchers from the United Kingdom are investigating how to deploy 3D printing in providing emergency accommodation. But what’s really interesting is their potential use of drones to survey affected areas that can’t be reached by emergency services and also to autonomously build free-form, light-weight building structures with minimal human direction or the need for bulky printing equipment.

  1. Greater Choice

When it comes to design, 3D printing also presents new possibilities that are difficult or impossible using conventional construction methods. As an example, minimising complications related to curved walls and non-linear shapes could provide greater architectural flexibility and result in beautiful and organic designs such as this award winner from Wimberly, Allison, Tong and Goo (WATG).

Photo by WATG
  1. Increased Sustainability

China’s WinSun – which made headlines by building 10 single-story houses in only one day in Shanghai – has started using recovered building and industrial waste material to construct buildings and interior decorations. Through the use of cement, glass fiber and construction waste the company is not only able to produce buildings more sustainably but also for as little as $5000 each. They claim 3D printing can reduce construction waste by 30-60% while also reducing construction time by 50-70% and labour costs by 50-80%.

The design of building components is also allowing for new approaches in ongoing energy management. Check out these 3D printed bricks from Emerging Objects. Made from ceramic in a lattice design, unlike a conventional brick they actually absorb water and allow air to pass through. The result is a cooling effect and less reliance on air-conditioning.

  1. Wider Reach

Italian outfit WASP – World’s Advanced Saving Project – has launched their Starter Kit which aims in part to help poor and remote communities build low-cost residences and vertical gardens using local materials such as clay, mud and straw.  Citing United Nations figures which estimate that 100,000 houses will be required every day over the next 15 years for the 4 billion people worldwide who subsist on an annual income of less than $3,000, the group aims to make communities self-sufficient in building their own minimal-cost housing.

London-based architects Foster + Partners is looking much further afield, teaming up with the European Space Agency and NASA to conceptualise lunar habitations on the moon and Mars. Through the use of semi-autonomous robots and lunar soil, the firm believes small dwellings can be constructed to protect astronauts from meteorites, gamma radiation and temperature fluctuations.

With technological constraints easing and the technology becoming more cost-effective, the opportunities to deploy 3D printing in construction truly do seem limited only by our own imagination. What other benefits or applications do you envision?


The above is written by Cushman & Wakefield’s Sheridan Ware, Chief Information Officer (Asia Pacific and Greater China).

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