The subject of intense debates for many years now, 3D printing is a subject about which there still seems to be very little widespread consensus. It is rare to find the professional whose opinions on this business are both clear and insightful. Recently, the construction industry has started to weigh in, and the discussions that have popped up are nothing short of fascinating.
At the forefront of this trend? Dubai. The Emirate is a leader when it comes to 3D printing technology, and over the next decade, it is believed that 2% of new-building plans will be 3D-printed. Check out the Dubai Future website, which explains that the overarching strategy is to adopt the emerging technology in order to cut costs, with a focus on the medical and construction sectors in particular. The technology could potentially restructure the entire economy and labour market and redefine productivity as a whole.
In particular, I foresee the MEP sector benefiting from 3D printing technology, which will, in turn, change our lives and the cities we live in. I am not going to make the argument that conventional construction practices will become obsolete, as if buildings could now be manufactured from scratch with a big 3D printer that can mix cement, steel, and plastics. There is still a long way to go before we reach that stage. Nonetheless, incremental improvements to the technology will continue to move us in that direction.
It is important that we distinguish 3D printing for modeling and planning needs from its adoption for building construction. With all due respect for everything one reads about innovation such as BIM and smart cities, the truth is that there has been much less innovation and development in the construction sector than in industry as a whole.
It could even be argued that, over the years, technology has hampered efficiency in construction. Specifically in the US and Europe, the more resources and technology there are engaged in any given construction project, the greater the delays and the more problems that are likely to arise.
The greater the number of people and stakeholders involved in a project, the greater the complexity. Thus, heightened risk becomes inevitable. There is no shortage of examples in this area: the Berlin Brandenburg Airport, for instance, shows that not even the Germans, longtime engineering leads that they are, can claim to be immune to human error.
The Economist reported this year that the snagging list was seemingly never-ending, from missing check-in counters and luggage conveyor belts to ill-fitted and malfunctioning fire-safety walls, pipes, and cables. The current delay is clocking in at nearly a decade. The cost overrun to date is a staggering EUR 4bn ($4.74bn), double the original budget.
How has it become a seemingly impossible task to build something as straightforward as an airport? In theory, construction projects should be rather simple. You gather the information about the scope of work, price it correctly, and then deliver the project. However, when projects do not happen according to plan, whatever the reasons or inevitable excuses there may be, it almost always comes down to human error.
This is where we find the greatest potential for emerging technologies such as 3D printing: better tools expose flaws in the planning process before they escalate into problems that have to be dealt with on the construction site. In other words, delays will be reduced. More creative solutions to design problems can be achieved when we work in a virtual environment that is manifested physically. Why? Simple: it allows us to test different ideas, and even make mistakes, without there being any associated costs.
Beyond visualising a building project and how the different parts all fit together, the next step in 3D printing is to use it to manufacture entire prefabricated sections that simply slot together, eliminating the possibility of humans misinterpreting the drawings. Again, this is not a new approach or methodology. Off-site factory-based manufacturing techniques have been common in construction for a long time.
Pre-manufactured formwork ramps up efficiency, but it does not really help much in planning the MEP fit-out. There has been a significant limit to the levels of intricacy and customisation achievable until now. The latest developments use laser measurements that are fed into a BIM model and exported to a 3D printer, so that separate customised components can be composited layer by layer.
This means perfect incorporation of the MEP architecture into the layout of the panels and walls, with ducting and wiring planned and controlled precisely. For example, a section of a building can be pre-manufactured in a single unit that meets all of the service requirements of a building. Customised design and delivery not only renders the construction process more efficient than traditional techniques but also creates an architecture that is integrated fully with the engineering function in order to make buildings perform better.
All of this results in productivity gains, reduced labour costs, and safer working environments. In the coming decades, there is reason to believe that construction will move more and more into a controlled factory environment to facilitate stricter quality control and more rapid production and efficient resource usage. I foresee 3D printing used on-site mostly on large-scale and specialised projects, where there is a high proportion of unique components required.
Finally, realising the full potential of 3D printing will make it easier to do construction in remote locations where access to building materials is restricted. One idea on the table currently is even using 3D printing to build a village on the moon using lunar soil!