What’s this all about?
Waste is a tremendous problem in the global construction industry. In fact, “for every 100 houses built, there is enough material waste to build an additional 10 houses.” This amount of waste causes both environmental and economic challenges. From an environmental perspective, roughly 136 tons of construction waste are sent to landfills each year in the United States alone. Additionally, material waste contributes to 15% – 30% of cost overruns on construction projects – which, in a highly competitive industry, puts significant pressure on operating margins.
Additive manufacturing has shown promise in addressing these issues. In construction, the 3D printing process begins with an architect designing the proposed structure using computer-assisted design (CAD) software. Next, the construction firm uses a large-scale 3D printer to bring that vision to life.
One particular area of focus among contractors has been material extrusion – also known as concrete printing — a technique which “involves extruding material through one or more nozzles mounted on a robot arm,” and “differs from the long-established sprayed-concrete method, in that it applies the material precisely and takes a layer-by-layer approach.”
Okay – how can 3D printing help?
Concrete printing can benefit construction projects in three ways:
- Reduce labor, material, and equipment costs: According to research conducted by the Boston Consulting Group, 3D printers require minimal human oversight and reduce overall equipment costs, which account for over a quarter of the expense of traditional construction projects. Additionally, additive manufacturing allows contractors to be more efficient in their material usage.
- Shorten project timelines: According to Rob Francis, Director of Innovation at Swedish construction company Skanska: “3D concrete printing… has the potential to reduce the time needed to create complex elements of buildings from weeks to hours.” Unlike human workers, additive manufacturing equipment can work around the clock – shortening timelines and providing an important source of competitive advantage during the project bidding process.
- Reduce project risk: Through limited human involvement, autonomous construction projects can greatly reduce the risk of on-site accidents and their associated liability costs.
Innovation at Winsun
Winsun, a Shanghai-based engineering company, has embraced the 3D wave – transitioning away from its roots as a building materials supplier to become “the world’s first high-tech company to build houses using 3D printing technology.” Winsun first experimented with 3D printing in 2005 as a way of improving the speed of its production process while reducing its reliance on costly (and highly variable) human labor. By 2008, Winsun had developed “the world’s largest 3D construction printer… measuring 10 metres wide… and 150 metres long.”
As a first-mover in the large-scale 3D printing space, Winsun first needed to prove that its technology could successfully build houses. In 2013, the company achieved this goal by printing ten single-story homes in under 24 hours. The project was both environmentally-friendly (sourcing 50% of its “ink” from construction waste) and cost-effective (reducing overall construction costs by roughly 60%).
Despite recent success, Winsun’s management team faces three challenges:
- Winsun must address the concerns of architects and developers who doubt whether “high-quality buildings can be constructed via 3D printing.” The company has challenged this perception by inviting clients to tour its factories and encouraging architects to use 3D-printed parts in their work. In the coming years, Winsun should enter high-profile architecture competitions in order to demonstrate the quality of its constructions, as well as partner with cutting-edge architects who can influence public opinion.
- Building codes lack clear standards for 3D printing, making it hard for Winsun to expand its operations. In China, Winsun’s management team has sought to modernize local building codes by working closely with the Chinese National Construction Department. As Winsun looks to scale internationally, it should dedicate an employee team to assessing the attractiveness of new geographies from a regulatory perspective. Additionally, Winsun should explore partnerships with multi-national construction firms in order to leverage their ability to influence regulatory change, as well as gain access to their capital and client base.
- In order to grow profitably, Winsun must re-evaluate its production and distribution process. Currently, Winsun prints concrete parts at one of its factories before shipping finished parts to a construction site for installation. However, as Winsun scales internationally, this distribution model exposes the company to high shipping costs. Despite the large up-front investment, Winsun should consider purchasing additional printers in order to accommodate international project growth.
Winsun has taken bold steps to transform the future of the construction industry. However, several questions remain unanswered:
- How might Winsun address public concerns regarding the stigma and structural soundness of 3D-printed buildings?
- Which construction projects should Winsun target next? Should it expand its technology to larger-scale buildings? In which markets?
- As concrete printing technology becomes more commonplace, how can Winsun protect itself from competition (e.g., construction firms that decide to purchase a large 3D printer)?
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