The first disruption in over 160 years
In 1849, Joseph Monier, a French gardener, invented reinforced concrete, concrete in which steel is embedded to resist forces, for the use of his concrete basins.1 The disruptive technology was immediately applied to floors, arches, and bridges, creating the foundation of modern construction.2 However, over the past 160 years, the construction industry has not undergone another major transformation.
As a result, the construction industry has registered disappointing efficiency gains, and its growth in labor productivity continues to lag far behind that of other industries.3 Concrete has to be poured on site, and it takes time for materials to settle. The entire process is still extremely labor-intensive.
The development of 3D printing, adding layers of a structural material instead of pouring concrete into a mold, is expected to make a disruptive impact to this over-a-century stagnation. AECOM, a fully integrated infrastructure firm, headquartered in California, has taken initiatives to launch architecture into a new era. “From recycling plastic waste into building material to reducing costs in obtaining modular building components during construction, the benefits of 3D printing could have major potential to disrupt the industry,” noted Michael S. Burke, a chairman and CEO of AECOM.4
The lack of innovation has created fierce competition and has put enormous margin pressure on construction firms (see Figure 1). 3D printing technology enables companies to improve productivity by cutting labor costs through automated manufacturing process, together with reducing the amount of waste. Although additive manufacturing has been applied to a wide range of sectors, including the aerospace and automotive sectors, the application in the construction industry is still at an early stage. Several issues persist: (1) resolution problems (large-scale printing often produces rough results), (2) speed (big printing remains slow), and (3) high costs. Therefore, 3D printing has been mostly applied to low-volume, high-value parts.5
Source: BMI Research6
AECOM’s track record
AECOM has been working with additive construction since 2011. The company focused on applying 3D printing for prefabricated construction, where pieces of buildings are made in factories before being shipped to a construction site. This application enabled the company to construct a series of cells for multiple prisons in the U.S. and various components for hospital rooms in Ohio.7 By 3-D printing jail cells out of concrete, AECOM can precisely place openings for plumbing and other fixtures, which is key to keeping the cells secure. 8
To accelerate the move in the short terms, in May 2017, AECOM signed a Memorandum of Understanding with a Chinese 3D printing company, WinSun. This agreement allowed AECOM and Winsun to pursue opportunities together for the next three years in order to deliver the benefits of 3D printing of buildings and their components to clients around the globe.9
AECOM is seeing potential collaborative project opportunities for clients in the Middle East with Winsun, which is one of the leading companies in the 3D printing industry, applying the technology for construction of full-scale buildings. WinSun’s technique involves extruding layers of concrete on top of one another, and the company recently announced it will lease concrete 3D printers to Saudi Arabia.10
In Middle East, AECOM is now embracing the challenge to fully manufacturing architecture, through building long-term relationships with the governments and construction companies with advanced technologies. The region is taking a lead to introduce the technology to build its cities. For example, Dubai Future Foundation announced that it “has launched the ‘Dubai 3D Printing Strategy’, a unique global initiative that aims to exploit technology for the service of humanity and promote the status of the UAE and Dubai as a leading hub of 3D printing technology by the year 2030.”11
The way forward
To ensure the leading position, AECOM should engage in two strategies.
(1) Acquire clients and projects in emerging markets (in the short terms)
Developing regions in Asia and Africa are expected to account for most of the world’s new urbanization in the coming decades.12 Besides the Middle East, which already took a strong initiative to build cities with 3D printing, AECOM should seek for the demand from these markets and communicate with both the government and investors.
(2) Invest in talent (in the medium terms)
Although the design process of architecture has been mostly digitalized, the design for the 3D printing construction requires different expertise.13 Because the technology is still new to the industry, there are not many experts who are able to create effective designs to improve productivity. AECOM should invest in developing such talents, which will become its key competitive advantage.
The construction industry is finally expecting a disruptive change. However, the industry is generally highly regulated by building codes. Will governments approve the new construction method, considering the existing regulations on safety and fire prevention? The wider application requires incremental changes in multiple fields.
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0 Featured image: Corey Clarke, “AECOM Forms Agreement with WinSun To Use 3D Printing In Construction”, 3D Printing Industry, May 18, 1017, https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/aecom-forms-agreement-winsun-use-3d-printing-construction-113608/, accessed November 2018.
1 Encyclopedia Britannica, “Reinforced Concrete”, https://www.britannica.com/technology/reinforced-concrete, accessed November 2018.
2 Encyclopedia Britannica, “Joseph Monier”, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Joseph-Monier, accessed November 2018.
3 Excerpted from BCG, Philipp Gerbert , Santiago Castagnino , Christoph Rothballer , Andreas Renz , and Rainer Filitz,
“The Transformative Power of Building Information Modeling”, https://www.bcg.com/publications/2016/engineered-products-infrastructure-digital-transformative-power-building-information-modeling.aspx, accessed November 2018.
4 Excerpted from AECOM, Michael S. Burke, “Drones, virtual/mixed reality and 3D printing are the future of construction”, https://www.aecom.com/blog/drones-virtualmixed-reality-and-3d-printing-are-the-future-of-construction/, accessed November 2018.
5 World Economic Forum, “Shaping the Future of Construction: A Breakthrough in Mindset and Technology”, May 2016.
6 BMI Research, “Construction Disruption: Building Technologies In Focus“, August 2017, p.14.
7 Michael Molitch-Hou, “Additive Construction: From the 3D-Printed House to the 3D-Printed High-Rise”, engineering.com, May 31, 2018, https://www.engineering.com/3DPrinting/3DPrintingArticles/ArticleID/17038/Additive-Construction-From-the-3D-Printed-House-to-the-3D-Printed-High-Rise.aspx, accessed November 2018.
8 Christopher Mims, “3-D Printed Buildings Are a Tech Twist on Ancient Construction Techniques”, Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2018.
9 “AECOM signs Memorandum of Understanding with Winsun to collaborate on 3D printing for building design and construction”, PR Newswire Asia; New York, May 18, 2017.
10 Corey Clarke, “AECOM Forms Agreement with WinSun To Use 3D Printing In Construction”, 3D Printing Industry, May 18, 1017, https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/aecom-forms-agreement-winsun-use-3d-printing-construction-113608/, accessed November 2018.
11 Dubai Future Foundation, “Dubai 3D Printint Strategy”, https://www.dubaifuture.gov.ae/our-initiatives/dubai-3d-printing-strategy/?mod=article_inline, accessed November 2018.
12 “AECOM signs Memorandum of Understanding with Winsun to collaborate on 3D printing for building design and construction”, PR Newswire Asia; New York, May 18, 2017.
13 Michelle Bangert, “Design for 3D Printing”, applianceDESIGN October 2017, p.29.