The ugliest bridge in the world. 3D printing in Acciona…

3D printing seems to be a natural fit for construction. It can potentially fix some of the most burning operational problems in the industry. But attempts to approach the trend are rather clumsy so far…

The construction industry today.

The future seems to be looking bright for the global construction industry. Some analysts predict that the volume of construction output will grow by as much as 85% by 2030[1]. The opportunity is there but there are a few major issues, that give construction companies a headache[2]. They face a serious shortage of workforce[3], an increasing complexity of projects, rising material costs, more and more unfavorable contract terms as well as growing pressure on safety and sustainability – just to name a few. But here 3D printing comes as a savior! Or does it?

The importance of 3D printing for construction.

Indeed, 3D printing, also known as Additive Manufacturing (AM) seems to be a natural fit for the construction industry. It can be used to create construction components just as well as print the entire buildings and is suitable for nearly all the key construction materials, including concrete and metal.

Experts claim that construction companies will have to adapt to this new megatrend, whether they like it or not[4] if they don’t want to lag behind the competition. And that is because 3D printing is an answer to many of their burning problems and promises some serious process improvement.

First of all, it addresses the shortage of workforce in the construction industry. In 2018 nine out of ten U.S. contractors reported difficulties in finding skilled labor[5] and the situation in very similar virtually everywhere in the world. Insufficient workforce creates a serious bottleneck in the process and decreases construction outputs. With 3D printing it becomes possible to replace a large percentage of your workforce with machines, operating 24/7. This leads to both efficiency and safety improvements. What else could you ask for?

At the same time 3D  printing is an answer to the increasing costs[6] of materials as well as growing pressure on the speed and timeliness of the delivery. And 3D printing removes a lot of variability from the construction process (due to limited use of human workforce, ability to shorten lead times[7] and remove the supplier risk) as well as significantly lower waste[8].

No wonder 3D printing has recently been of interest to some of the big names in the construction industry: Skanska, LafargeHolcim, BAMInfra, Chinese Winsun, Russian PIK and and finally – Spanish Acciona.

Acciona’s short and medium-term response to the megatrend.

Acciona became interested in 3D printing as early as in 2016. They partnered with a research group – The Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia to work on developing a large scale cement additive manufacturing technology. In December 2016 they inaugurated the first 3D-printed pedestrian bridge in the world. As impressive as it may sound its usefulness and, most of all, its aesthetics were widely questioned. It was more of an experiment than a commercially justified project and was named by the press “the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen”[9].

Not discouraged at all, Acciona remained interested in 3D printing. The company has launched their I’MNOVATION[10] program aimed at supporting startups that develop technologies applicable to Acciona’s operations, one of them being 3D printing. This might be a good way to keep an eye on the developments in this space in the 2 to 10-year horizon.

Other recommendations for Acciona.

Even though Acciona’s efforts are undoubtedly better than nothing it is really hard to resist the impression that they are moving way to slow. In the short term the company should allocate more resources to develop 3D techniques, which are not only interesting but also instantly commercially applicable.

In the medium term it might be a better strategy to, instead of supporting brand new ideas, buy a company at a slightly later stage of development. At least one of Acciona’s competitors – Vinci has already done this[11]. There is an abundance of available targets[12] and Acciona has got sufficient resources (EBITDA of EUR 579m in 2017[13]) so why not shorten the path to commercialization?

Is it really going to work? Open questions.

One question that still needs to be answered is whether customers are ready to accept these new constructions techniques. As early as 10 years ago many predicted that prefabrication would be the future of construction. But the industry seem to never have convinced their customers that it would have no negative impact on quality. Will they have more trust in 3D printing?

The construction industry tomorrow.

No matter how clumsy the attempts to use 3D printing in construction are (just take one more look please):

the potential benefits for the multi-trillion-dollar construction industry are just too big to ignore. And whoever embraces this opportunity first will gain a tremendous competitive advantage. And maybe even will have a chance to 3D-print the first neighborhood on Mars[14]

(800 words)

[1] Global Construction 2030 Report. Oxford Economics (January 2018)

[2] K. Jones. Major challenges facing the construction industry. Lake Erie West Manufacturing & Construction News, vol. 21, issue 5 (May 2018): 8-9

[3] Construction Europe, vol. 28, issue 4 (May 2017): 27

[4] R. de Laubier. BCG Report: Will 3D Printing Remodel the Construction Industry?. (January 2018)

[5] Statement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Press release (June 7 2018) https://www.uschamber.com/press-release/workforce-challenges-continue-impact-construction-industry-9-out-of-10-us-1

[6] 3D printing offers cost savings for construction. Water & Effluent Treatment News (June 2015): 4; 3D printing to change the construction industry. Operations Management, vol. 42, issue 2 (2016): 5

[7] I. Kothman. How 3D printing technology changes the rules of the game: Insights from the construction sector. Journal of Manufacturing Technology Management, vol. 27 issue 7 (July 2016): 932-943

[8] P. Wu, J. Wang, X. Wang. A critical review of the use of 3-D printing in the construction industry. Automation in Construction, vol. 68 (August 2016): 21-31

[9] J.M. Bond. The world’s first 3D-printed bridge is the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen. The Daily Dot (December 2016)

[10] https://www.imnovation.com/

[11] https://www.vinci-construction.com/en/news/vinci-construction-signs-partnership-agreement-xtreee-and-acquires-stake-company-leader-3d-concrete-printing/647/

[12] R. de Laubier. BCG Report: Will 3D Printing Remodel the Construction Industry?. (January 2018)

[13] https://www.acciona.com/pressroom/news/2017/july/acciona-increases-ebitda-579-million-euros/

[14] M.C. Roman. Centennial Challenges Program Update: From Humanoids to 3D-Printing Houses on Mars, How the Public Can Advance Technologies for NASA and the Nation. Space and Astronautics Forum Conference Paper. NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (September 2018): 1-24; J. Rubenstone.; PRINTING BUILDINGS: NASA’s challenge to adapt additive manufacturing for robots on Mars is only one sign 3D printing is becoming a reality in construction. (cover story). Engineering News-Record (9/4/2017): 26-31

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7 thoughts on “The ugliest bridge in the world. 3D printing in Acciona…

  1. Fascinating! This article left me wondering why Acciona’s bridge project failed so miserably in the aesthetic department. Was this a function of 3D-printing, or was it simply a poor design with additive manufacturing used for its execution? From first glance, I would not necessarily blame the 3D-printing technology for its aesthetic failure. I would also love to understand what role labor unions have played in the decreased roll-out of 3D-printing across the industry. Might they be afraid that 3D-printing will do more than fill the labor gap, but perhaps actually decrease the number of jobs available? Really interesting read – thanks for sharing!

    1. I agree with ABCDEF, it is probably more a fault of the designers than of the technique. There are some better examples of how 3D-printing can be used in construction in a way that does not look awful, like in this link: https://www.3dnatives.com/en/3d-printed-architecture030520174/

  2. The benefits of additive manufacturing in the construction industry are clear. In addition to addressing the labor gap, rising material costs, and pressure to create sustainable infrastructure, 3D printing could also eliminate raw material waste in the industry.

    As you mentioned, customer perception of quality may be a big hindrance to the increased adoption of 3D printing in this space. When I first read that this process was used to create the bridge, my first thought was “is it safe?!” This is an area where I think having some early and visible successes can be instrumental in increasing the use of 3D printing in construction as well as user comfort with the practice. However, the opposite is true as well; highly publicized failures could prevent the use of 3D printing in the construction industry. Additionally, while the bridge does not have the most aesthetically pleasing design, that could contribute to its popularity and make it a piece of art and a conversation starter.

  3. This article is a really interesting analysis of what might be to come in construction. The bridge is a cool experiment, and it made me wonder about where 3D printing will make its first repeatable inroads in the industry. Will the labor shortages that you mention be the driving factor, and will 3D printing be used to replace specific types of skilled labor (e.g., bricklayers)? How will the reaction by craftsmen’s guilds impact the timing and entry point for 3D printing? I’m interested to follow this space and keep an eye on this trend that you’ve identified!

  4. This is such an interesting application of the 3D printing technology. I am also super curious as to how far we can extend these applications in construction of larger structures. There is a problem in how you would use this technology with precision. The question that comes to my head is whether 3D printing will go beyond the prototype stage and replace construction materials. How would this affect the labour requirements and their capabilities? What raw materials are required and can they be made affordable and hence accessible to wider variety of companies? I shall continue to search and read more on this topic.

  5. Wow, that’s an ugly bridge!

    Aesthetics aside, I believe consumers’ acceptability of 3D-printed building materials and structures relies on government approval and visible, public adoption of the technology. Most, if not all, US states have some version of a “Qualified Construction Materials List.” I think it will be critical for the substances and uses of 3D-printed materials to be included on these lists to address consumers’ immediate fears about safety.

    Additionally, seeing the use of 3D-printing technology in a very public place would be a great way to raise awareness of the technology and drive consumer demand. I recommend construction firms using this technique invest in visible projects such as government buildings, sporting areas, and monuments. The downside risk of public displays is large, but worth taking on to develop the market for these products.

  6. Great read, thanks for sharing this. It is indeed a very ugly bridge!
    This article left me with a number of questions. One of them relates to materials and the ability of 3D printing to handle steel reinforcement for example, versus concrete. It links to your comment about safety and the perception we may have as users. Beyond the aesthetics, the fact that the bridge is all white somehow makes me wonder if it’s just plain concrete. And then if it is just one big piece, I’d very much worry about aging and micro-cracks (because no room for compression/dilatation if it’s just a block) that would decrease structural integrity.
    Another question I had was about team dynamics when including machines in the mix. What impact does this have on architects and designers’ work? New means of building may mean new ways of designing. It goes beyond technical issues, to impact teams and organizations and how they reorganize work around this new trend. Perhaps this explains the ugly design of the bridge you mention in the article. Very interested to see what the next Acciona creation will look like!

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