Is the future of construction set in stone?

By Neha Mutagi | 29th March 2020

Upon first inspection, the image below may not strike you as "cutting-edge technology". However, this is a 3D printer; something set to turn the entire manufacturing sector on its head.

Renowned Robotics Engineer Hod Lipson said it best: "3D printing is already shaking our age-old notions of what can and can't be made."

3D printing refers to the process of making three-dimensional solid objects by layering materials such as glass, plastics and resins on top of one another. Initially, it was predominantly used for manufacturing small, intricate components. But, over the past two decades, it has become a relatively straightforward operation and feasible for a wide range of uses. Nobody could have anticipated its potential to transform the construction industry.

The move towards 3D printing in construction has been rather gradual since conservative companies are hesitant to make the switch. Nonetheless, the advantages are tempting, with its potential to reduce building time, and the labour output required. Building an entire house could be a matter of just flipping a switch. Also, it enables firms to undertake construction in dangerous circumstances, where workers' safety may be compromised.

We can observe efforts to use this technology in several countries such as Russia, the United States of America and China. Consider the example of WinSun- a Shanghai-based firm that is leading the paradigm shift in the construction industry. WinSun used large 3D printers to ten small houses within 24 hours, with each one costing less than £3,500.

The development of computer-controlled printing also yields the prospect of sustainability. The growing trade deficit for construction materials in the UK itself demonstrates why the additive-manufacturing process may be appealing (see graph below).

Exports and Imports of Construction Materials in the UK (value in pounds sterling), Source: Monthly Statistics of Building Materials and Components, Table 14 (data.gov)

Unlike traditional methods that largely utilise imported materials, 3D printing uses fewer inputs that have the potential to be manufactured domestically. It could, therefore, reduce the dependence on global supply chains and carbon emissions. Additionally, as opposed to subtractive manufacturing techniques, 3D printing utilises only the right amount of material needed when adding layers. Therefore, the accuracy of the whole process ensures considerably less waste.

For all the above reasons, we can see why there might be a growing commercial appeal for these printers. According to SmarTech Publishing, by 2027, the 3D-printed construction industry will be worth $40 billion.

Nevertheless, there are obstacles on the road towards autonomously built housing. Firstly, construction is a labour-intensive industry; workers may be distrustful of technology that ultimately removes the need for semi-skilled staff. Yet, I believe that the adoption of 3D printing is just one aspect of digitisation across the construction industry. Whether it is the use of Simulations, digital customer platforms or 3D printing, construction is transforming. As was the case in different sectors, it may lead to increased demand for higher-skilled workers and newly emerging jobs along the construction chain.

Regulation is another major hurdle for this transition. As with any technological advancement, regulators must be convinced of the houses' safety. In comparison to conventional building materials, that have been honed over the years to ensure safety, those of 3D printers have no performance history, putting regulators on the spot.

Technology has undoubtedly transformed the world we live in- 3D printing is simply another example of this. On the one hand, digitisation requires complex equipment and thorough regulations which is a long process. While it is possible to visualise 3D printers being used to produce specialist components on a large scale, it may not replace concrete or bricks anytime soon.

However, the need for affordable housing and the fear of climate change may inevitably force us to pursue 3D printing as a sustainable alternative. In my opinion, this is poised to be a viable solution, offering low construction costs as well as ensuring our buildings are environmentally friendly.