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Could 3D Printing be the Future of Construction?

   24th May 2023 |   2 mins

What is 3D Printing?

3D printing is a phrase that we’ve heard in passing but for many of us, it isn’t exactly clear what 3D printing is or how it works.

Essentially, it is a process by which a Computer Aided Design (CAD) is used to create a physical object using layers upon layers of material (known as additive manufacturing) to create shapes.  Typically, plastic is used to create 3D printed objects.  For construction, the material used is usually concrete or cement, though it can be made from earth materials like soil and clay.

Precision and Accuracy in 3D Printing

Precision and accuracy are commonly measured when assessing 3D printing capability.  

Precision means the consistency of a print, i.e. can it be done again and have the same result?  In other words, how reliable is it?  Precision is an important factor when analysing whether a 3D print design could create 100 houses that are exactly the same.   

Accuracy determines how close the physical print is in comparison to the Computer Aided Design.  The closer the physical print is to the design, the more accurate it is.

If the physical print is both accurate and precise, the 3D printer is doing its job well and has a lot of potential to sturdily produce lots houses which are almost identical. 

Industries Using 3D Printing Successfully

3D printing has been used to innovate new car designs prior to mass production in factories.  It has also been used to create vehicle parts for use on automotive manufacturing lines.  

3D printing in the automotive world is particularly useful for creating bespoke parts.  The construction industry could also benefit from this, particularly for more complex architectural designs. 

What are the Pros and Cons to Using 3D Printing for Construction?

Is it Sustainable?

Because the process is very precise, it creates almost zero waste in the build process.  Material volumes would be calculated ahead of the build and it’s very unlikely the machine will need to use less or more than the calculation.

Some house 3D printers can be powered by solar energy, reducing the amount of emissions produced in the build process.

Is it Time Efficient?

The machine can be programmed to create unusual shapes that would take a longer time to develop and execute in a conventional build.  Curves and more obscure shapes are more easily achieved in 3D printing due to the precision of the calculations that go into the Computer Aided Design.

The build of a one-story house could take hours rather than weeks to complete.  The machines are capable of working at an incredible rate, fast enough to build an entire house in 24 hours.

Is it Cost Efficient?

For a 3D printer and the accompanying technology that is capable of printing an entire house, the investment would be massive.  

The hope is that as the industry further recognises the benefits of 3D-printing, it increases its demand for 3D printed builds, the cost of machinery will begin to drop, making the process more affordable.

3D printing has been said to be a possible solution for the current labour shortages in the construction industry, as less people are physically required on the site during the construction of a 3D printed house, in comparison to one built by people.

The use of lattice structures could further help to decrease cost on material spend, by requiring less space to be filled with the material.

The lattice design works by creating a structure which adds support and strength.  It can bring down the production cost and possibly the cost of the house, for the homebuyer.

What are the Social and Safety Factors?

It is thought that 3D printing could improve overall health and safety for humans in the high-risk landscape of the construction industry.  There is less room for error and less opportunity for extreme injuries or fatalities.

The intricate details of a functioning home, such as electricity, plumbing and heating, are unable to be printed and must be installed in the conventional way, by people. 

The final look of a 3D printed house is also not necessarily the most attractive thing you’ve ever seen; it has a very unfinished look about it.  Renders are often added to enhance the finish of a 3D printed build and make it look more like a conventional build.

Care must be taken to ensure the building meets strict health and safety regulations, which can be difficult to ensure with a 3D printer.

There are currently no laws on how to use 3D printing equipment in construction.  Until these regulations are made and standards have been set, it may be too risky for builders to invest in the technology, as construction is bound by health and safety.

While lowering labour costs is great for keeping the cost of the build down, it doesn’t help people in need of construction jobs.  Those people would be being replaced by a machine and could threaten a large amount of human jobs.  

That being said, there is still a requirement for human resource in the way of quality control and ensuring the build complies with various sets of regulations.

Due to the swiftness of build completion, this could be a viable solution to the current housing shortage in the UK. 

How Practical is it?

It is difficult to compare the length of time it takes to construct a house conventionally with that of a 3D printed one.  Previous one-story domestic builds have taken 24 hours to print.  Pretty impressive.  

While it is fast, these houses often appear small and tight spaced, with fewer walls and more open-plan spaces than conventionally built houses.  If this is what you are after from a home, perhaps 3D printing is the way forward!

A 3D printer is only capable of producing the walls and frames of houses and not all of the inner workings of a home.  Out of all of 3D printed buildings that have been constructed so far, the majority of them are only one story high, or bungalow sized.

So, Could 3D Printing be the Answer to Problems Now and in the Future?

The next few years of innovation could bring 3D printing into the mass market for construction.

The use of 3D printing in construction is evolving from a futuristic and far-fetched idea, into a practical and efficient solution to a mass of industry problems. 

The opportunities presented by 3D printing in the construction industry are vast.  They offer a multitude of benefits to the builders, the end users and the planet.  As with all technological advancements, we must consider whether we are also displacing ourselves, as humans, too.