The applications for 3D printing seem to be endless. While it is still a new technology, innovators are already developing ways to use it to automate the construction process with large-scale printers that could conceivably build homes overnight.
How it works
3D printers are often thought of as microwave-sized machines that recreate digital models out of plastic. While this is true for most consumer-based 3D printers, there's a whole other level of 3D printing technology being developed and implemented for industrial uses, including construction.
Large-scale 3D printers designed for bigger projects are becoming more mainstream and affordable. The introduction of 3D printers to the industry can lead to reduced costs labor and materials and more efficient construction.
Companies that have working prototypes of large-scale 3D printers include Apis Cor, which has a printer that can create a 400-square-foot structure within 24 hours. The project cost just over $10,000 to build, including labor and materials. While the company's printer created the cement walls, manual labor was still required to install the roof, wiring, plumbing and insulation in order to make the home livable.
Contour Crafting is another company that is working on concepts to 3D-print structures using a massive, on-rails scaffolding. It even has concepts to print structures on the moon or Mars.
Rather than the photopolymer resin used in most 3D printing, the industrial-sized printers for construction projects use other materials, the most common being a concrete composite. The 3D printing construction company CyBe uses a specially designed mortar that sets within three minutes of being printed and dries in one hour.
Many companies currently use or are developing a concrete mix made with recycled materials. Construction company Cazza's mix is made from up to 80 percent recycled material.
Up to code
The 3D printing construction industry is still in its infancy, so as of 2017, don't expect 3D-printed high-rise condos to begin sprouting up overnight. This construction method still has some development to undergo before it meets strenuous building codes, which themselves vary from region to region. The construction industry and the methods it uses have not changed much in the last 100 years, so it may be a challenge to successfully integrate 3D printing and other innovations into the mix, according to engineering company VIATechnik.
Two areas that 3D printing still needs to improve are speed and materials, according to Sarah Boisvert, chief 3D printing officer for Potomac Photonics. 3D printing companies need to prove their techniques can produce buildings that stand the test of time, weather, sturdiness and other livability standards. In the U.S. and other countries with construction standards and regulations, 3D printing construction is so far being used for conception, prototypes and even artistic architecture.
Many of these companies tout that 3D-printing structures could alleviate housing shortages in developing countries or in the aftermath of natural disasters by providing temporary housing.
While the larger-scale applications are still being developed, 3D printing can still be useful to construction companies and contractors. Rather than printing whole structures, some companies are using it to create individual pieces and parts.
"3D printing within construction is already happening, but mostly for very specific components like joints and connectors," said Sam Janzen, creative director at LUMA-iD. "If one expensive 3D print costs less than a series of standard components, or if the 3D print is small enough to be cost-efficient, then it's a no-brainer."
If you own a 3D printer, the internet is home to thousands of open source 3D printing plans for a multitude of tools that could be used for work. On Thingiverse, you can find free plans for wrenches, hand-screw clamps, hand drills, wire strippers, tweezers, measuring tools and plenty of other tools to round out your handyman belt.
If you need to pitch a project to potential clients, you can impress them with a 3D-printed model of the finished project drafted with AutoCAD or another blueprint program. Presenting a physical, scaled-down version of the project may be the trick to winning a bid.
While it's not likely we'll see 3D-printed buildings become commonplace anytime soon, it's important to keep the concept in mind and think of ways it can be applied to your business in the near future.
- Reduced labor costs – With machines doing much of the heavy lifting, labor will be exponentially reduced (though not eliminated, as there is still need of subcontractors and experts to set up and run the machines).
- Faster construction – Many 3D printing construction companies claim their process is faster than traditional cement laying.
- Standardized construction – With printers working off a single digital blueprint, there should theoretically be few errors.
- Less waste – Ideally, printers would use only the exact amount of raw materials needed for each project.
- Less labor and traditional materials demand affects the industry.
- Transportation and setup can be tedious and costly.
- Errors on the digital back end can cause tremendous setbacks.