According to technology research giant, Gartner, the compound annual growth rate of 3D printing is set to exceed 106% and $13.8B by 2018. This is quite an impressive number for a technology that still seems a little like science fiction to some.
In fact, some people in the construction industry can be downright Luddites in their attitude toward new technology. However, 3D printing may cause them rapidly to change their minds. After all, what says construction more than a machine that can print a building? Or at least many of its components?
It turns out that 3D printing could be more profitable for the B2B space than the consumer space. Part of that is the scale, but much of that has to do with cost savings on the jobsite. Prefabrication can expand its footprint through the easy set-up and operation of a printer capable of taking a design and creating an object without the intervention of tools other than the printing compound and the printer itself.
Construction is faster because there is less need to fabricate onsite. This, in turn, reduces labor costs because workers are needed for shorter periods of time. The technique can also enhance your ability to deliver more complex architectural designs with integrated functionality for a lower price point.
Green construction techniques thrive with 3D printing. New materials that meet today’s environmental standards are rapidly being developed by researchers. These new materials will have less impact on the environment in the form of less excess waste and the use of sustainable base compounds.
The State of Current Technology
There are a couple of techniques 3D printing has introduced.
One is called “contour crafting.” It’s done using a concrete-like material to form walls and print building components like wiring and plumbing directly into a building with a single iteration. An entire wall can be printed and craned into without the need for trades to come in and install utility pathways.
A similar technique, called concrete printing, uses a large printer to create construction-grade objects from 3D models. One idea is to design the concrete material using gravel and a special binder to create the solid components. When it comes time to remove that component, the binder is removed through a chemical or other process, allowing the gravel to fall into a pile to be easily cleaned up.
The technology is advanced enough that researchers claim to be able to manufacture detailed concrete objects that are as small as a pea.
Rather like contour crafting, researchers hope to advance to encasing certain “smart” components within the concrete as it is being printed; for example, wireless security systems or light sensors can be embedded in the material rather than installed after the wall is complete.
Since 3D printing consists of laying down layers of material to build up an object, there are a couple of issues to be addressed with printing using concrete. One is keeping the underlying layer moist enough to bond with the new top layer. Another is ensuring the material is stiff enough not to collapse upon itself as it builds upwards.
3D printing has a lot of promise for the construction industry, but there are a few things holding adoption back right now.
For one thing, equipment costs are still high. The cost would need to be significantly cheaper to justify the purchase of a 3D printer. Also, a better variety of quality materials to use in the printer are still under development.
Until these two issues are addressed, the 3D printer may remain a manufacturing niche product. Still, the future looks bright.
Earlier, we said this technology may seem like science fiction. How about the idea of being able to use 3D printers in the future to build off-planet? Houses can be constructed from local materials to avoid the need to ship massive containers of building materials and large numbers of workers. Construction of homes and habitats can be performed at a rapid pace with lower costs.
Meanwhile, down here on Earth, 3D printing can provide the same benefits. Can’t wait to get started.