3D Printing and Looming Changes in the Construction Industry

Chicago, IL – Surprisingly, the construction industry hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years. Oh, there are new things happening in mega-construction projects; larger skyscrapers, longer bridges and other huge structures; but not in day-to-day construction; that’s pretty much stayed the same. Other than a few innovative materials and techniques, along with a greater reliance on power tools, home building is pretty much the same today, as it was 100 years ago.

That might all be changing soon. 3D printing, which has been the realm of engineering test labs, may make a drastic change in the ways that our building structures are built. In recent years, 3D printers have moved out of the engineering laboratory, where they’ve been hidden for over 20 years, and are beginning to be used for other things. Artists have discovered this new medium, and yes, it’s being looked at for construction as well.

3D Printing Overcomes Construction Constraints

In the last decade, engineering research teams have been experimenting with using 3D printing to build components of buildings and entire homes, via 3D printing. The printing is done with what we could call “super-size printers” which use a special concrete and composite mixture. This mixture is much thicker than regular concrete, allowing it to be self-supporting as it sets.

This opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for architects everywhere. Much like the freeform design of The Bird’s Nest in Beijing, China, 3D printed architectural components are totally unfettered by typical design constraints. The ability to use curvilinear forms, rather than being cost and process limited to rectilinear forms, opens a whole new realm of design.

It is a commonly understood truth that rectilinear forms (rectangular forms) are one of the weakest structural forms imaginable. On the other end of the spectrum, the humble egg, which is totally curvilinear, is one of the most efficient structures in nature. A minimum of material, crafted into a shape where there are no straight edges, providing simple consistent curve, makes it the strongest structural design possible. 3D printing offers the practical possibility of using these curves in common structures.

Advantages of 3D Printing in Construction

Structural components that are made via 3D printing, otherwise known as “concrete crafting,” use less material than the same components made using normal concrete forming techniques. Whereas curved concrete structures that are poured into forms are solid, those made via concrete crafting can be hollow, allowing space for essential building services right inside the structural elements of the building.

MIT Media Lab Construction

While 3D printing of homes and buildings is not ready to go commercial yet, the technology has been developed to the point where full sized testing could be accomplished. This would require the capital investment to build the necessary equipment, essentially an enlarged version of the test equipment that already exists.

While the excitement over contour crafting centers around the design flexibility that it gives the architect, there is another great advantage which may have an even greater social impact. The lower materials usage and considerably lower labor makes this a much less expensive method of construction; even lower than current construction methods being used in third-world countries. This lower cost may best serve mankind in providing inexpensive housing to the millions of people who are currently living in sub-standard homes.

Regardless of what direction 3D printing takes in construction, it is clear that it will change construction forever. Whether this is in creating new aesthetic structures or providing low-cost housing, the buildings of the future are likely to look much different than those of today. To add to the process of change, building information modeling (BIM) will surely influence construction. You can read more here.

*Image depicts MIT Media Lab Construction

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