Additive manufacturing – Will the world’s next mega city drop out of a 3D printer?

Can you imagine building your next house from the push of a button? Will, you feel safe driving over a bridge if it was built by a giant printer? In this age of digital technology disruption, we as a society might not have a choice but to get comfortable with 3D printed infrastructures.

Historically, the construction industry has been very conservative and relied on traditional techniques to solve the worlds growing problems of developing sustainable infrastructures. In recent years, the emergence of R&D organizations has started to shed a bit of light on how additive manufacturing – 3D printing could revolutionize the construction industry[i]. A strong sense of anticipation has been generated, however, overall 3D concrete printing is still in its early stage[ii].

3D printing – A fit for construction?

The TU Eindhoven concrete 3D printer printing the bridge. Photo via De Ingenieur.

This technology provides a wide range of application across industries with some of its most significant benefits to the construction industry listed below:

  1. Implementation of Sophisticated designs:
    The technology also almost enables limitless freedom of design –  simplified production of complex shapes and sizes could generate increased satisfaction in the construction of beautiful architectural designs.
  2. Faster construction process:
    Prototyping of 3D printing during construction has been proven to cut construction time drastically. For example, Researchers from the Additive Manufacturing (AM.NUS) at the National University of Singapore have developed a novel toilet unit design that can be 3D printed in under five hours, which currently takes a day to build manually[v].
  3. Reduced cost of the overall construction project:
    The new toilet unit design by the AM.NUS Construction 3D Printing Programme has been recorded to deliver 25% cost savings compared to conventional construction method[vi].
  4. Deliver on sustainable construction goals:
    First, 3D printing allows for the use of less material during construction – causing less harm to the environment. This technology could also enable the use of environmentally friendly materials to be printed further reducing the harmful effect of this industry.

Additive manufacturing offers better overall efficiency as compared to the traditional manufacturing processes. As a result, the technology is expected to expand exponentially in the coming years in the construction sector. This will be highly beneficial in emerging markets like African countries battling with the stress of providing adequate infrastructure for a growing population[vii].

How Eindhoven University of Technology (TU Eindhoven) is fostering the use of additive manufacturing to combat infrastructure issues across the Netherlands.

Though the 3D printing business is still a niche market, there has been a rise in the number of specialized organizations focus prototyping solutions for construction players[viii]. One prominent example of this organization is the Eindhoven University of Technology. Their strategy has been to develop the additive manufacturing techniques in response to the increasing labor cost across Europe and partner with construction giants to deliver large-scale proof of concept.

Building the world’s first 3D-printed bridge

TU Eindhoven recently collaborated with Royal BAM Group, a Dutch general contractor to complete the World’s first 3D printed bicycle bridge in Holland. The bridge is 8 meters long and 3.5 meters wide with 1 cm layers of concrete. Located in the small town of Gemert, just outside Eindhoven, the bridge was opened Oct 2017.

Building the world’s first neighborhood of habitable 3D printed houses

TU Eindhoven is on the path to create another historical moment – onsite printing the world’s first habitable 3D houses by the middle of 2019 in compliance with the Dutch building code. The University has partnered with another Dutch construction company Van Wijnen to deliver on this project. The company claims to already have 20 buyers lined up for the first set of houses[ix].

Potential next steps:

The university has been a leader in 3D printing using concrete. They should consider partnerships with other disruptive startups in this space to exponentially grow. An example of a possible partnership here will be with MX3D (a Dutch-based startup), an organization with a specialized focus on metal 3D printing. Recently, this startup has started printing metal bridges [x]. The two organization could potentially work together to develop a machine capable of printing steel reinforced building components.

 

Forward-looking concerns:

As we look forward, several key issues need to be considered: how ready are we as consumers and regulators to embrace this change? How enthusiastic is the construction industry to make a switch from the dinosaur-aged construction techniques towards embracing this digital technology? And lastly who is responsible for developing the skills needed for this to thrive? The education system or the industry?

(752 words)

References:

[i] Philipp Gerbert, S. C., Digital in Engineering and Construction: The Transformative Power of Building Information Modeling, BCG Focus, March 2016

[ii] 3D concrete printing market is expected to cross $70 million by 2022: Credence research. (2016, Jul 19). M2 Presswire Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/1805250921?accountid=11311

[iii] Subramanian, V. (2018). Metal and Ceramic Injection Molding. BCC Research.

[iv] The 3D printing in construction market is estimated to hit $314.95 million by 2023. (2018, May 14). M2 Presswire Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/2038182042?accountid=11311

 

[v] Singapore: NUS builds new 3D printing capabilities, paving the way for construction innovations – NUS construction 3D printing programme aims to transform construction with novel building designs and materials. (2018, Jul 06). Asia News Monitor Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/2064351155?accountid=11311

 

[vi] Singapore: NUS builds new 3D printing capabilities, paving the way for construction innovations – NUS construction 3D printing programme aims to transform construction with novel building designs and materials. (2018, Jul 06). Asia News Monitor Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/2064351155?accountid=11311

 

[vii] Jacques Bughin, M. C. (2016, September). mckinsey global insitute. Retrieved from mckinsey.com: https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Featured%20Insights/Middle%20East%20and%20Africa/Realizing%20the%20potential%20of%20Africas%20economies/MGI-Lions-on-the-Move-2-Executive-summary-September-2016v2.ashx

[viii] Romain de Laubier, M. W., Will 3D Printing Remodel the Construction Industry? BCG Focus, January  2016

 

[ix] Boffey, D. (2018, June 6). The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/jun/06/netherlands-to-build-worlds-first-habitable-3d-printed-houses

 

[x] France-Presse, A. (2017, October 17). The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/18/world-first-3d-printed-bridge-cyclists-netherlands

Previous:

How AI Positions LinkedIn to Solve the Global Skills Gap

Next:

Optum: Machine Learning at the center of Health Care

19 thoughts on “Additive manufacturing – Will the world’s next mega city drop out of a 3D printer?

  1. This is really interesting piece that touches on a potential revolution of a very old industry. I wonder however, if the world has enough feedstock material to support a large scale commercialisation of this 3D construction. Also, can the world keep up with manufacturing the building material and scrap the well established steel and cement industries?

  2. Thanks for this insightful piece Adebodun, you raise a very interesting point with respect to who is actually responsible for developing the necessary skills for 3D printing to succeed – industry or education. In my opinion, I think the initial impetus is inevitably going to come from industry. In this case, I believe the construction industry will need to invest the time and capital into additive manufacturing R&D before education organizations invest material resources into developing the necessary skilled labor force. Until the industry comprehensively proves out the concept of additive manufacturing and validates its role as an important part of the industry, I don’t think it will be meaningfully incorporated into education. That said, in order for 3D printing to succeed in construction or any other industry, I think there must be a highly collaborative effort between industry and education. Only then will we be able to even consider 3D printing the next mega city!

  3. Great post! You raise a particularly interesting question around consumer readiness to embrace these innovations. A large-scale proof of concept (e.g., TU Eindhoven’s bridge) is one thing, but wide adoption of 3D printing in construction and infrastructure will require quite a step change in the mindset of both the industry and the consumer. Until the industry commits to proving out the concept on a massive scale, I think we’ll continue to see user hesitation.

  4. It would be interesting to see the cost breakdown of 3d printed concrete parts vs poured concrete parts, specifically for the simple geometries that we find in everyday cities. I would speculate that poured concrete is cheaper for simple geometries. However, I would also argue that if we want to make cities more beautiful, and therefore create places that people sincerely care about, 3D printed buildings would allow complex geometries and integration of materials (for example you see them laying the wire very precisely) into design. Imagine for example, buildings that literally had spaces for plants built into their exterior, so that we no longer have just green roofs, but also green siding. For this reason, I believe that 3D printing of buildings is best suited to a niche market of high-end architecture.

  5. Very interesting post. Thanks for sharing! Similar to BlueSky, I would like to better understand the cost breakdown of 3D construction vs. traditional construction in various contexts and for various projects. My hunch is that, additive manufacturing is currently only cost effective in a very select set of use cases due to high labor costs (as in the case of the Dutch projects) or unique design requirements. I am specifically curious to better understand the potential for this technology in emerging markets – Is this really a cost effective method for infrastructure development or is this another “leap frog technology” that people get excited about but which realistically has prohibitive up-front investment in technology and talent?

  6. Both the industry and education are responsibility for developing the skills needed for this technology to thrive. However, this would come organically as this technology develops and more companies utilize 3D printing.

    Consumers are always ready to embrace the change as we use final products and don’t concern ourselves much with the production or manufacturing of them so long as they work.

  7. As costs associated with 3D manufacturing go down over time, how far-reaching are the applications? This technology sounds like it can be part of the solution to homelessness. Of course, overcoming regulatory and local political resistance will be challenging. This is something I’ve seen in the Bay Area.

  8. This is a topic that is very interesting and I am excited to see where the technology develops! I think that consumers are more likely to adopt this material in countries/areas where homes are smaller and more simple. Using 3D printing creates “minimalist” structures typically using only cement. I think this means that adoption in the short-term may be limited in the U.S., but could be much bigger internationally. The construction industry will respond to customer demand and cost-driven incentives, so although they may not be eager to adopt, I think adoption could be driven by start-ups until the applications are more broad. I think that in the early days the responsibility for developing the technology has rested with universities, but as these technologies become more monetized, companies will have more and more incentive to invest in R&D. Fascinating topic!

  9. Adebodun, this was a very informative piece of text, thank you!
    Reading your article, it raised my awareness about the application of 3D printing in an industry that has relied heavily in traditional production processes, but that has also benefited from immense technical incremental innovation in recent years.
    One question that still remains for me is what is being fundamentally changed in construction through the adoption of 3D printing, and what role does 3D printing have in changing the ways of the industry (e.g. making it more cost efficient or accessible)? In other words, is 3D printing just an incremental innovation or is it going to be a disruptive force in the construction industry? Only time will tell

  10. Great read, thank you! What a cool topic. It will be interesting to see what happens with this technology in the future. I do feel like I’ve heard a lot about 3D printing technology in construction for quite some time and so I was a bit surprised that you mentioned the first habitable house won’t be finished until next year. What is the reason there hasn’t been wider adoption of this technology? Is it really societal apprehension? Or does it have more to do with technology costs? I personally would probably trust a computer to build my house (or at least sections) more so than a construction team and am therefore hopeful this technology diffuses more quickly.

  11. Thanks for writing this! I usually think of 3D printing in terms of smaller projects — i.e. prototypes of consumer goods — but you make a good case for larger scale projects. I was surprised that the construction time can be cut down so quickly. I had assumed that most elements of construction are quite basic — beams, arches, etc — so its development time would have been minimally low, but it looks like there may be ways to create buildings faster. With housing prices getting higher and higher, this might be an interesting way to dramatically increase supply of housing in a short time frame.

  12. Thank Adebodun. This is a fascinating example of how 3D printing is used in our world. I think the consumers and regulators will need time to adjust to the new technology as it applies to construction as this disruptive technology may have safety and license implications. It is also important for the traditional real estate/construction companies to keep up with this trend so that they can reduce costs and stay innovative in order to keep their competitive advantage in the long run.

  13. I can’t wait for the first 3D printed building. I wonder what the construction industry is doing to prepare for a potential disruption. I wonder what TU Eindhoven thinks of as their competitors. As they onboard more developers as partners, and as they solicit projects, I think a major roadblock will be convincing developers and clients that for XYZ situations, 3D printed buildings and infrastructure is a very good option. I would like to know more about what TU Eindhoven thinks their relative advantage is (what are the circumstances under which their technology is a good option for developers and clients)?

  14. I hear you loud and clear re: regulations. But why do you think these need to be regulated? Is there a risk of improper use in a manufacturing point of view? I think there are risks for home usage, but how is this conceptually different from simply building something in your home or in a company’s manufacturing plant? I would love to talk more about what you think here, in person.

  15. Interesting use potential, and the environmental upside is certainly interesting, but I’m still not entirely convinced that it makes sense to use 3D printing for large scale projects. I see 3D printing as useful for processes that have long set up time and where there’s a high level of customization required. Practically speaking, cities should have a level of homogeneity (e.g. roads should have a certain system, buildings shouldn’t be too wacky), which means that traditional methods of construction may be better suited for large scale, homogenous projects such as a city. I’m not yet entirely sold on the application of this innovation.

  16. Great article. I got to watch the construction process from my office window for several months and the inefficiencies of the process immediately drew my attention. After talking to people that new a thing or two about construction, I realized that construction process has not changed much for a long time and is still using archaic approaches. To your point of how ready is the ecosystem to embrace change, I think it is all about sense of urgency. I believe 3D printing technologies will soon replace old ways in markets were resources are severely constrained and efficiency is the only way to survive. The rest of the market will be late adopters.

  17. Awesome article! While I understand the more immediate concerns around regulation, thinking more long term I am super excited for organizations like Habitat for Humanity to get a hold of this technology. Habitat for Humanity is a global non-profit that provides housing to individuals/families who demonstrate a need for safe, affordable housing. By contributing sweat equity, i.e. helping in the construction of their homes, new homeowners help the organization cut down on construction costs. Employing the technology mentioned above, there is potential for the organization to provide homes to a much larger audience considering the significant reduction in costs.

  18. Interesting read Adebodun, thank you! When I read your post, my first concern would be the required skills needed and how they would be developed. I see that you also mentioned this as potential challenges. Developing the skills is one aspect, but as the result of the automation of many things, I have a bigger concern of unemployment. When we think about the construction industry and how many jobs that it creates, it might be catastrophic to disrupt this industry. This is not only the result of additive manufacturing, but also many technological developments.

  19. Great piece! The angle of how much value 3D printing can have with a clean slate environment e.g. critical infrastructure in some emerging markets vs. replacing existing infrastructure is an interesting one. I think the mindset of consumers is much more open when their isn’t a ready comparison. I’d be curious to explore the other cost factors that build in here e.g. established factories and ability to produce quickly vs. new machinery in an EM setting.

Leave a comment