How will 3D printing change the construction industry?
While job costing software has revolutionised many financial and administrative processes that building firms face, this technology doesn’t often change the very bricks and mortar that are used in your company’s work. Changes to hardware of this kind tend to take place a little more sluggishly – but when they do emerge, they have the ability to completely alter the face of the construction industry. Today, 3D printing stands as one of the most exciting emerging technologies. However, if 3D printing becomes commonplace, what form will take? We explore the costs and benefits of 3D printing in construction, and where the technology currently stands.
3D printing involves the layering of materials in an additive manner in order to create a 3D shape. It’s also called ‘additive manufacturing’ – a process which has been commonplace in the manufacturing industry since the ‘80s. The technology makes use of digital 3D models that the printer ‘reads’ and transforms into a real object. Different materials can be used in 3D printing, including plastics, metal and concrete.
3D printing technology has already been used to print houses and blocks of flats. Chinese company Winsun created dozens of buildings to demonstrate the technology, including small houses made out of cement and waste building materials that cost only $5000 each to produce. Ten small demo houses were built in 24 hours. Winsun also created a large 3D printed villa, which took eight people a month to finish. If normal methods had been used, it would have taken 30 people three times as long and would have cost at least twice the amount. The end goal of 3D printing in construction is to use the technology to print and assemble electronics, plumbing and even tiling using a single on-site machine.
3D printed buildings can be built more quickly, more cheaply and more sustainably than those built using conventional methods, but the technology is still in its infancy. There are huge employment concerns associated with the adoption of 3D printing. The majority of manual jobs would become obsolete – staff would only be needed to prepare the land, transport the printer and monitor its progress.
At present, the main obstacle is the cost of the technology. Only a few 3D printers of this size and capability exist in the world at present. Of course, over the coming decade this will change, the technology will become more widespread and the cost will become more reasonable, and later, more affordable than traditional building methods. Another barrier to overcome is our own preferences – UK residents are very much accustomed to bricks and mortar and may be reluctant to switch to 3D printed houses simply because they’re not as aesthetically pleasing. However, the ease with which computer models can be customised means that more homebuyers will have the chance to have a home built to their own specifications.
Only time will tell how 3D printing will change the industry here in the UK, but it remains important to be aware of looming technological advances such as this.