Bechtel Corporation: Responding to Additive Manufacturing in Construction

This paper analyzes the competitive threat and potential responses of the established construction corporation, Bechtel, to the disruptive technological advances of additive manufacturing in the construction sector.

Background.

Additive manufacturing (AM), or more commonly 3D printing, is a procedure that forms layers to create solid objects from digital files, rather than by subtraction.  In subtractive manufacturing material is removed, like when a sculptor chips away at marble to form a statue.  AM has been changing industries ranging from fashion, to medical care and even construction.4 Two main commodities in the construction sector are steel beams and concrete which I have seen produced and utilized during civil works construction projects I managed.  Traditionally, steel beams are formed by forcing pliable metal through rollers to form a desired shape or cutting sheets to desired specifications and welding them together, while concrete is created my mixing water, aggregate (sand, rock, gravel) and cement together and then placing/pouring it into a form to be set to certain specifications.  In construction, AM provides opportunities to improve safety, lower labor costs and increase the speed and efficiency of operations; it has already been used to form cementitious materials on a range of projects (Figure 1).

I am looking at Bechtel Corporation for the megatrend of additive manufacturing. Bechtel is the largest U.S. engineering and construction firm that completes projects throughout the world. Additive manufacturing will be important for Bechtel in two main ways.  First, the construction sector is risk averse and slow to change, yet there is a competitive threat of other companies implementing additive manufacturing in their processes.1 Additionally, there are significant potential synergies in 3D printing and traditional construction such as reliable specifications, customization and cost reduction among others (Figure 2).2 As 3D printing becomes more common in the construction industry the need to innovate and adopt will be imperative for Bechtel.

Bechtel’s Additive Manufacturing Approach.

In the short term, Bechtel has implemented 3D printing capabilities from outside companies for use in molds for placing concrete on their London Tube Project.5 They have also sponsored AM innovation with their Bechtel Innovation Design Center at Purdue University and by partnering with NASA and other companies as part of the 3D Habitat Challenge.  Bechtel possesses significant market share, is a global leader in construction and innovation and by adopting AM they can augment their work to utilize less costly labor and deliver on customer requirements more rapidly which would likely help them differentiate from competition during project bids.

In the medium term, Bechtel is positioned to be an early adopter in the construction sector which would put them at the forefront of a growing trend.  While there are challenges such as costly capital expenditure, potential policies and regulation, and quality issues, the benefits abound.3 By utilizing 3D printing on their London Tube Project they have taken the first step to integrate these technologies and potentially signaled an intention to be a first mover in large scale implementation.

Recommendations.

In the short term I would recommend Bechtel establish formal partnerships and supplier agreements with the growing number of AM companies to leverage competencies on projects.2 I would recommend utilizing these capabilities on components or portions of projects as technology is still advancing and it does not seem prudent to take significant operational risk currently.

In the long term I see further use for 3D printing at Bechtel.  They should develop the capability within their own organization in order to scale, test and possess capability for on-site AM with multiple materials.  This capability would provide significant competitive advantage to perform in-situ repairs (repairing existing structures) and shortening the transportation and logistics chain from Bechtel to its project site and consumers; currently, 3D printing is commonly performed off-site in controlled environments.1 Possessing internal competencies and developing on-site capability would allow them to optimize their supply chain and provide a significant point of differentiation in an industry in the midst of disruption.

Open Question.

An open question remains about whether AM technology will advance enough to make its use in construction reliable, safe and economical.  Would Bechtel, or any established construction company, be well served to invest heavily in 3D printing as a way of the future given these risks? Will people trust 3D printing as a method to engineer the structures they rely upon so heavily?

Figure 1: Images showing a mobile 3D printer specification and the printer in action as well as 3D printed concrete walls.  These are created with printable feedstocks of raw materials, the 3D printer set to specifications, and a tailored geometric design.  The printer then creates layers of deposited filaments instead of cement being poured or placed into molds to set.3

Figure 2: Synergies between AM and traditional construction.2

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References

  1. Camacho, Daniel Delgado, Patricia Clayton, William O’Brien, Carolyn Seppersad, Maria Juenger, Raissa Ferron and Salvatore Salamone. “Applications of Additive Manufacturing in the Construction Industry – A Forward Looking Review.” Automation in Construction 89 (2018): 110-119. https://ac-els-cdn-com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/S0926580517307847/1-s2.0-S0926580517307847-main.pdf?_tid=3e72b1a8-b6f6-4adf-b399-a2df93e50247&acdnat=1541883361_11019a9ecc9aa995dfc1b53aa0e11791
  2. De Laubier, Romain, Marius Wunder, Sven Witthoft, and Christoph Rothballer. “Will 3D Printing Remodel the Construction Industry?” BCG Publications (January 23, 2018). https://www.bcg.com/en-us/publications/2018/will-3d-printing-remodel-construction-industry.aspx
  3. Ghaffar, Seyed Hamidreza, Jorge Corker and Mizi Fan. “Additive Manufacturing Technology and its Implementation in Construction as an Eco-Innovative Solution.” Automation in Construction 93 (2018): 1-11. https://ac-els-cdn-com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/S0926580517309731/1-s2.0-S0926580517309731-main.pdf?_tid=11b823f8-9447-4373-b828-241443138063&acdnat=1541883388_873780f22bed4f0a80819f7e7cff3dde
  4. Spaeth, D. “3d Printing is Changing the Face of Multiple Industries.” ECN: Electronic Component News 61, no. 9 (October 2017): 21-23. http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=b8cc2043-21dc-45fa-8e48-c11b0e8dfed0%40pdc-v-sessmgr06&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#AN=125445588&db=bth
  5. ”Bechtel Using Wax and 3D Printing to Build London Tube.” Contruction Equipment (July 24, 2017). https://www.constructionequipment.com/bechtel-using-wax-and-3d-printing-build-london-tube

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4 thoughts on “Bechtel Corporation: Responding to Additive Manufacturing in Construction

  1. Very good read. I completely agree with your recommendation of localized on-the-site 3D printing for construction material, enabling firms to (a) reduce lead times of procuring similar parts from far away and (b) enabling production of highly customised parts specific to the client’s needs. This optimization of supply chain as a key competitive differentiator is what struck me the most. In the mining industry as well, key players are moving to manufacturing of key tools at the site through 3D printing for similar reasons.
    I believe the biggest barriers to use of 3D printing in construction will be significant upfront investments and slow rate of production. Based on your citation [2], to overcome these barriers, larger sized printers at lower costs and significantly higher throughput levels needs to be developed. However I like the idea mentioned in the report (which several startups have started adopting) – having multiple multi-axial smaller and cheaper robot-printers, thus eliminating the upfront cost- and size-barriers.

  2. Great report. With the risks you outline, Bechtel has an interesting conflict of interest as early adopter of this technology in construction. Through its partnerships, Bechtel is investing heavily in developing the capabilities of 3D printing, though ultimately they are taking a big bet that the technology will be safe and economical. I think once the tech is proven, people will adapt, however until that point it seems that Bechtel is bearing much of the risk – I wonder how much of their investment will translate into proprietary technology, and what other construction firms are investing in similar research.

  3. Excellent article! I agree with your assessment of the value and potential of AM on Bechtel’s construction activities, particularly to simplify and automate repetitive tasks. Increasing safety on the job site can have significant ripple effects such as improved employee morale, talent acquisition and profitability. As argued in your Gaffar et al. citation, 3D printing can also result in significant material and carbon emissions savings, further improving profitability.

    To your suggestion to focus on partnerships in the short term, I completely agree with you and Burdell that partnership will be essential to success. However, I wonder if Bechtel might be better off pursuing one partnership with an extremely successful AM – similar to Nike with HP – rather than attempting many small partnerships? To Sinclairs’ comment, a technology like this one will require heavy upfront investment, so it may be prudent to invest in a tried and true AM.

  4. Great summary of the situation. As I finished reading, I had the same questions you did. This may be due to my own ignorance but is 3D printing able to provide the same safety and reliability that traditional steel and concrete do? How much of a structure or project can be done by 3D versus repairs or a few components here and there? Also do you have a sense of the public (and engineering) trust to date? For example, do people know or care when something is 3D printed, are engineers using this in safety-critical environments, has there been enough stress testing and quality control to ensure this is worth it? I am worried that the first incident will really damage the use of 3D printing. Lots of questions which are worth considering!

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