In 2004, Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis of the University of South Carolina built the first 3D printed concrete wall . This breakthrough has led to an explosion of investment in the application and commercialization of 3D Printing in the US$ 10.6 trillion construction industry . In 2013, there were barely 25 start-ups in the field; today there are about 65 offering a range of services throughout the construction value chain .
The reason for the increased interest in this sector is that there are a number of advantages this technology could bring versus traditional construction methods, such as lower cost, increased occupational safety, reduced waste and optimization in project schedule . Despite these potential advantages, adoption of 3D printing has been slow. The construction industry is conservative and are deeply entrenched in traditional processes that has not fundamentally changed for many decades in terms of productivity and efficiency .
Against this backdrop, Winsun, a construction company based in China, has dedicated itself to developing and utilizing 3D printing technologies in the pursuit of efficient, safe, and sustainable construction.
How to build a house in one day
Yingchuang Building Technique (Shanghai) Co. Ltd, or Winson as it is known in China, was founded in 2003. The company started out as an advanced building material supplier, specializing in complex interior décor. The company made headlines globally in 2014 by printing a batch of ten complete houses. Since then, the company has conducted several bold projects that received widespread media attention, such as printing a stylish office building for the Dubai Future Foundation (Figure 1). It has continued to develop technologies in 3D printing, and now owns 151 patents .
Using its 3D printing technology, Winsun has increased productivity and realized significant cost savings. It claims that a standard house can be built for about 30,000 RMB (USD $4,800) in one day . Using a closed loop concept, it can source 50% of the ink material for printing from construction waste or mine tailings, which is environmentally beneficial when compared to traditional construction methods. Furthermore, the printing process minimizes waste from the construction process as Winsun’s modular dry construction method is dust free, which saves Winsun 30-60% of material relative to traditional construction methods .
Challenges in scaling up
To date, Winsun has sold more than 100 houses of various types, many of them in Dubai. The Dubai government has also recently contracted Winsun to build 17 office buildings using 3D printing . However, several key challenges has to be addressed in order for the company to achieve its potential.
First, the main barrier facing adoption of 3D printing in construction is the skepticism of designers, project developers, governments and end-users. In response, Winsun hopes to change the hearts and minds of these stakeholders by investing heavily in producing highly visible complex prototypes. For example, the company is planning to erect a demonstration building more than 100 meters high near Shanghai, with approximately 200,000 square meters of floor space. They have also formed partnerships with several large turnkey construction companies such as AECOM in order to increase the credibility of its technology .
Second, there is a lack of clear regulations for 3D printing in the construction industry. The industry abide by a certain set of building codes and procurement standards, and most of these codes and standards make no mention of 3D printing. To address this issue, Winsun is working closely with China’s national construction department to amend existing building codes.
With these challenges in mind, my recommendations are:
- Shaping the regulatory environment: In addition to working with governments, Winsun should undertake efforts to work with regulatory bodies such as the International Code Council (ICC) in order help shape international building codes and standards.
- Investment in mobile 3D printing technology: Expand R&D efforts to develop mobile 3D printers for the construction industry. This would enable Winsun to reach smaller, more remote markets which would help increase adoption and potentially develop a licensing business model for Winsun.
- To increase adoption of 3D printing in construction, how might Winsun educate partners (or competitors) across the construction value chain: from architecture, to procurement, to maintenance?
- Should Winsun continue to focus on its core competency of constructing buildings, or should it expand to other high potential areas of 3D printing, such as industrial goods?
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