The hype around 3D printing, less sexily known as additive manufacturing, and its potential for construction is soaring to new heights -- literally. Realistically, though, how will this technology impact our cities and the way we live in them?
Last month, Dubai-based firm Cazza announced that it plans to build the world’s first 3D-printed skyscraper in the United Arab Emirates. San Francisco-based firm Apis Cor, whose strapline is “We print buildings,” goes further, saying it is ready to be first to start building on Mars in the future.
Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, we are not yet at the stage where our everyday homes are being squirted out of a printer. Promising progress is being made, though, and a number of different approaches have been demonstrated including on-site and off-site printing and the use of drones. Apis Cor recently printed wall structures for a small house in Russia in 24 hours, at a cost of just $10,000 (approx. £8,000). In 2014, Shanghai-based engineering and architecture firm, WinSun claimed to have 3D-printed 10 concrete houses in a single day.
New projects and startups are popping up all the time because of the huge potential benefits around the idea of 3D printing buildings and the size of the opportunity.
“We want to save the world”
Sustainability and environmental goals are a key strand of many smart city drives and 3D printing could contribute.
The 3D Print Canal House is a publicly accessible “research and design by doing” project in Amsterdam. An international team of partners from various sectors is working together on 3D printing a full-size canal house.(See artist impression image above, courtesy of DUS Architects).
Artist impression of 3D Print Canal House, courtesy of DUS Architects
The researchers say the 3D printing techniques they’re experimenting with can tackle some of the issues of traditional construction, “The building sector is highly polluting, not only in production but also in transportation of building elements. The use of standardised products leads to inefficient transport, many man-hours, and a high level of unfitting discarded materials.”
A lack of affordable housing is also a challenge where 3D printing could make a difference. A study from McKinsey Global Institute’s (MGI) study suggests that 1.6 billion people globally could be living in substandard housing or foregoing essentials to pay for their home within 10 years.
Nikita Cheniuntai, CEO, Apis Cor, claims that using 3D printing for house frame construction enables cost savings of up to 60 percent, commenting, “The economy comes from labour reduction, speed of construction and significant savings on finishing works.”
WASP (World’s Advanced Saving Project) in Italy focuses on sustainable, affordable housing. WASP’s Davide Neri explains, “We believe that what we are doing can help the world to be even better – so we joke that yes, we want to save the world.”
The company uses natural found materials to 3D print constructions, even though this can be more challenging than traditional materials such as concrete and plastic. So far the team has 3D-printed a “large architectural shape” using its Delta Wasp 3D printer (standing at 12 metres tall) and materials found on-site such as clay and straw. This work is part of the creation of the first 3D printed eco-village, on land made available by the Italian municipality of Massa Lombarda for experimentation with 3D printing.
Neri says, “It’s important to transfer new technologies in sectors like construction where we need to lower the cost of the final outcomes in order to allow people to afford a house.”
Up in the air
The Aerial ABM (additive building manufacturing) research project is developing a system that enables aerial robots to 3D print building structures autonomously.
As well as reducing construction times, material and transport costs and easing traffic and environmental impacts, the team say these technologies also have the potential to improve safety in the building industry. According to the International Labour Organisation, at least 60,000 people are killed every year on construction sites.
Flying robots could 3D print complex buildings and also work in remote or dangerous surroundings. This could have applications for temporary safety shelter in disaster scenarios, for example.
Another issue to consider is what these 3D-printed constructions will mean for the aesthetics of our cities.
The team behind the 3D Print Canal House notes that 3D printing allows more customization and variety, “One great advantage of 3D printing over traditional building techniques (such as prefabricated concrete) is the possibilities of using a high level of detail, ornament and variation. Rather than using standardised elements, 3D printed designs can each be modified and customised to fit the user’s needs and taste. It will no longer be more expensive or more labour intensive to add details to for example your façade and it is easy to create unique objects.”
Total Kustom’s Andrey Rudenko has demonstrated the art of the possible with a 3D printed concrete fantasy castle and a 3D printed hotel suite at the Philippines’ Lewis Grand Hotel, including a Jacuzzi room with a giant 3D-printed Jacuzzi.
There are still a number of challenges, though – chiefly regulation and safety.
Henrik Lund-Nielsen, director, Larsen & Partners, a consulting company focused on 3D printing within the construction industry, says, “I think we will see one to two years where it will still mainly be examples, test houses etc. An ongoing application? That’s 3-5 years ahead. We expect to see a lot of people doing a lot of things and a lot of PR and hype. At this point in the development of the industry that’s OK. You focus on the possibilities but to get real application going you need to focus on limitations.
"We still have much to understand about the structural strength of 3D printed objects, for example – in particular, the effect of building up a solid object from fine layers, says Dr Paul Shepherd, lecturer in digital architectonics, University of Bath. He notes, “This information is critical if we’re to have confidence in the ability of 3D-printed buildings to withstand both everyday use, and extreme conditions such as earthquakes or storms.”
On standards, Lund-Nielsen adds, “You can do a beautiful curved wall but how do you calculate the strength of that? All these calculations now are based on linear things, straight things. How do we fix that? Do we adapt the regulations? Do we do it in increments?”
It’s a matter of time, though. Dr Shepherd likens it to high-speed racing, “We are going to be solving so many problems on the way. It’s a bit like Formula One – they solve all these fabulous problems in the top end of the thing and it slowly trickles down into what you see on the roads.”
Dubai is taking a global lead with its 3D printing ambitions. This includes aiming to establish rules and standards for 3D printing construction practices to make them more widespread globally.
The City of Dubai has stated an ambitious aim for 25 per cent of its buildings to be based on 3D printing technology by 2030. Dr. Aisha Bin Bishr, Director General, Smart Dubai Office, says 3D-printed buildings are part of the smart living dimension of Dubai’s smart city strategy.
She says, “We not focusing on technology per se, technology is only an enabler for us. We are providing the city with the right tools and policy that will help make life much better and happier for our residents and visitors. 3D printing will eliminate a lot of unnecessary process in buildings to build faster.”
As well as homes and offices, Dubai is also interested in the potential of 3D printing other structures, from bridges to street furniture and more. “The sky’s the limit,” says Bin Bishr.
In May 2016, Dubai unveiled what it claimed was the world’s first 3D printed office building. “These offices were built in a very short period,” Bin Bishr says, “And it’s functioning. Many activities and events take place there…It is not only hype. It is happening – it is reality in Dubai.”
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