3D Printing Technology for Construction
The construction industry is slow to embrace new technologies. In recent years, though, 3D printing has emerged as a promising solution to many of the industry’s challenges.
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a process of laying down cross-sectional layers of material one after another until the complete object is built. This technique has been used for decades in the automotive and aerospace industries, among others. Its potential for construction, however, has only recently been explored. Technology has the potential to revolutionize the way we design and build structures, making construction faster, more efficient, and more sustainable. Figure 1 shows a 3D printer that is employed in the construction industry:
Example of 3D printing in the construction industry.
Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/guteksk7
In this article, we will explore the benefits and challenges of 3D printing technology for construction. We’ll also consider the different 3D printing methods that may be applied to the construction industry, and answer some frequently asked questions.
The 3D printing systems created specifically for construction are commonly known as "construction 3D printers." A construction 3D printing (C3DP) project typically starts with a 3D digital model of the structure that needs to be constructed. The model is virtually sliced into layers. The printing robot or gantry system then follows a pre-programmed path to deposit each layer of material, tracing the layer outlines and extruding material until it has completed the whole slice. Once one layer is complete, it begins the next on top of the first, and construction continues like this until the full structure is built. It may use materials such as concrete, metal, or polymers to form this 3D structure.
The most common 3D printing technology for construction involves a robotic arm that extrudes concrete while moving back and forth. Powder binding and additive welding are other methods used for 3D printing in construction. Powder binding involves the solidification of powder layers to create the desired object. Additive welding was demonstrated in Amsterdam with the printing of a functional, full-scale metal bridge. To date, 3D printing has been used to print houses, offices, and other structures.
The construction industry can benefit from 3D printing technology in several ways. Firstly, it allows parts and components to be tailored to a specific project, offering greater design flexibility and improved functionality. Secondly, it can significantly reduce waste by using only the amount of material needed to create a structure, leading to cost savings and improved sustainability. Beyond that, it can speed up the construction process since parts and components can quickly be made on-site, ultimately leading to faster project completion. Printing can also improve safety by reducing the number of dangerous tasks undertaken by workers. Lastly, while the initial investment in 3D printing technology can be significant, its efficiency and other advantages lead to cost savings over the equipment’s lifetime. Overall, the potential benefits of 3D printing make it a promising technology for the construction industry as a whole.
3D printing technology provides numerous benefits to the construction industry that traditional manufacturing processes cannot. These advantages include the following:
- Flexible Design and Innovation: Complex shapes and designs are far more possible through 3D printing than with traditional manufacturing processes. Unlike older methods that rely on reusing plans and templates, 3D printing enables you to create customized solutions. With the help of new software, architects can design innovative printable buildings. For instance, if clients request specific designs or unconventional shapes for their homes or offices, the models can be easily modified in the software and printed to match. This process has minimal impact on cost and requires less human effort than traditional construction methods.
- Rapid Production: 3D printing technology can produce parts within hours, accelerating the prototyping process. Done this way, each stage of the design process can happen quicker and cheaper than it would if the items were machined. The automation (or at least partial automation) of this technology means houses or structures can be built in a few days. Automated printers can work through nights as well and sometimes even in bad weather, so your downtime is minimized.
- Minimizing Waste: Construction sites are infamous for creating a lot of waste. However, 3D printing technology uses only the materials needed for each part, resulting in little to no wastage.
- Recycled Materials: Another benefit of 3D printing is that printers can use recycled materials. This benefits both your company and the environment. 3D printers typically create lattice patterns so recycled plastic, for example, can form the basis of a sturdy structure. The construction industry also benefits from recycled concrete and other recycled materials.
- Long-Term Cost Effectiveness: 3D printing technology can take the place of multiple manufacturing machines, so your equipment costs will be more reasonable. The reduced wastage and less downtime also result in added cost savings.
- Less Human Error: 3D printing technology can significantly decrease the occurrence of errors during construction. High-quality 3D-printed structures help prevent construction accidents and deliver top-notch results to clients. With the ability to operate around the clock, 3D printers can also minimize the need for human labor, with workers primarily serving in supervisory roles.
Though there are many pros associated with 3D printing in the construction industry, there are also some drawbacks. Some of these include:
- High Investment Costs: Buying or even renting a 3D printer can be very expensive. There are also the logistical challenges of transporting large 3D printers to work sites. In addition to the initial cost of the printers, ongoing expenses for materials and maintenance must also be taken into account. As a result, many construction professionals find it challenging to justify the cost of 3D printing technology when weighed against its potential benefit.
- Labor Shortage: The construction industry is experiencing growth but there is a shortage of skilled workers. 3D printing demands an even more specialized set of skills, which could be difficult to source from an already narrow and specialized pool of candidates. As a result, labor scarcity will likely continue to be a problem for the foreseeable future.
- Quality Control: While 3D printing technology is capable of producing complex structures and customized designs, the final product's quality can be challenging to maintain. In traditional construction, supervisors check their workers’ work for quality issues or errors. But since the 3D printing process is automated, construction relies on the printer's accuracy and precision. Additionally, raw material quality can also impact the final product's quality. The construction industry has strict standards for building materials, and ensuring that 3D printing materials meet these standards can be a challenge. As yet there are no universal quality control measures by which to judge printing materials.
- Regulation Challenges: The regulatory framework for 3D printing in the construction realm is currently unclear. This lack of government oversight is a significant obstacle to the rapid adoption of the technology. Integrating 3D printing technology into the traditional construction project management process will also be a challenge. It takes considerable time and political will to update building codes to reflect new technology. Ultimately, the aim will be to establish a consistent construction 3D printing building code that applies throughout all municipalities.
In the realm of construction, 3D printing technology typically falls into two categories: robotic arms and gantry-style setups. Each of these technologies is discussed below:
- Robotic Arm Extruders: Robotic arm extruders are configured similarly to cranes and are known as a contouring method. The robotic arm moves around while releasing material, such as concrete or polymers, layer by layer to create a 3D structure. The 3D printer robotic arm can be controlled using computer-aided design (CAD) software to accurately deposit the material in a specific pattern, shape, and thickness. Figure 2 below is an example of a robotic arm:
Robotic arm in 3D printing for construction.
Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/Phonlamai Photo
- Gantry System: A gantry 3D printer in a construction setting is a large-scale 3D printer that uses a gantry system to move the print head along the X, Y, and Z axes. They’re common among construction groups that 3D print large-scale structures and buildings. Gantry 3D printers are typically mounted on rails or tracks, allowing them to move in a precise and controlled manner. They can print objects on much larger scales than other types of 3D printers, making them ideal for construction projects. Gantry 3D printers are also known for their stability and cost advantages over other types of 3D printers. Figure 3 is an example of a Gantry 3D printer:
Gantry 3D printer in construction.
Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/guteksk7
Several 3D printing techniques can be applied to the construction industry, each method with its advantages and limitations. Here are some of the most common 3D printing methods in construction:
- Extrusion: This is the most common 3D printing technique in the construction industry. It involves dispensing materials through one or more nozzles mounted on a robotic arm, gantry system, or crane. This method can be used in almost all environments and is commonly used for modeling, prototyping, and production.
- Powder Bonding: Powder bonding is a 3D printing method that differs from other techniques in that it utilizes powdered material as its primary component. Powder bed jetting and binder jetting are two methods that fall under this category. In powder bed jetting, a laser melts building material particles on each desired layer of the object while more material is added to form a new layer. Alternatively, binder jetting employs a print head that dispenses a liquid binding agent onto the powder printing bed. The binder binds the particles together, forming each layer of the desired object before a new layer is added. The process is repeated layer by layer until the print is finished. This technique provides a high level of precision and can manage more intricate prints.
- Spray: The process involves an independent robot that selectively sprays pressurized construction material into the desired shape and repeats the process layer by layer. This technique leaves cavities that can then be filled with concrete. Its application is currently being researched for vertical elements and other features like façades or ceiling embellishments.
- Sand Layers: This is a 3D printing method that involves releasing layers of sand to create a structure. The printer releases sand grains until the desired thickness is achieved. Droplets of bonding agent are then released by the printer which harden and bind the sand. This technique is suitable for creating small structures or building components. One advantage of using sand layers is that the materials used in this technique are often cheap and readily available. It is also a relatively simple technique that requires less specialized equipment than some other 3D printing methods.
Despite its many advantages, 3D printing in the construction sphere still has several limitations. Here are some of the most significant limitations:
- Limited Materials: 3D printing in construction is currently limited to a relatively small range of materials, including concrete, plastics, and composites. This restricts the types of structures you can print, as well as their durability and lifespan.
- Size Limitations: Although some large structures are printable, the size of the printer itself often limits the size of the finished product. This makes printing large-scale projects difficult and time-consuming.
- Quality Control: Ensuring the quality of 3D-printed structures can be a challenge, especially since there are no established industry standards or codes for construction with 3D printing.
- Investment Cost: The cost of 3D printing technology and materials can be high. That alone can make it difficult to justify its use over traditional construction methods.
- Skilled Labor: 3D printing requires a specialized set of skills and knowledge that are not yet widely available in the construction industry. There simply aren’t many qualified workers who can operate and maintain 3D printers in construction settings.
Overall, 3D printers in the construction industry have proved fairly accurate. However, some factors can influence their accuracy. These factors include: the type of printer, the quality of the printing material, the structure’s design, and the skill of the printer operator. It is important to note that 3D printing technology is still relatively new and developing, and different printers vary widely in capability.
Additionally, the accuracy of a 3D-printed structure may also be affected by factors such as temperature and humidity during the printing process, as well as any errors in the original design or the conversion of the design to a printable file format.
Many different 3D printers can be used in the construction industry. Below is a list of some of the best 3D printers for construction:
- BetAbram P1: This 3D printer uses a gantry system with a build volume of 16 x 8.2 x 2.5 meters.
- COBOD BOD2: This 3D printer uses a gantry system with a build volume of 14.62 x 50.52 x 8.14 meters.
- MAXI PRINTER: The MAXI PRINTER is a robotic-arm printer and has a build volume of 12.25 x 12.25 x 7 meters.
- ICON Vulcan II: The ICON Vulcan II 3D printer uses a gantry system and has a build volume of 2.6 x 8.5 x 2.6 meters.
- CyBe Construction CyBe RC 3DP: This 3D printer uses robotic arm technology. It has a build volume of 2.75 x 2.75 x 2.75 meters.
Not yet. Although 3D printing technology has shown promise for building large structures, including high-rise buildings, the technology isn’t yet up to the task. Existing printers and print materials aren’t strong or durable enough for high-rise construction.
However, advancements in 3D printing technology — as well as new developments in materials science and engineering — will likely make printed high-rises possible in the future. Cazza Technologies, a construction company based in Dubai, has announced its plans to construct the first-ever skyscraper using 3D printing technology.
Yes, 3D printers are capable of printing a wide range of architectural models. The suitability of 3D printing for a particular model, however, depends on factors such as size, complexity, and material requirements. For example, 3D printing is useful for creating multiple copies of a model quickly and accurately. Prints can include different materials and colors. However, when it comes to larger architectural models, 3D printing may not be the best option due to the technology’s size limitations. In such cases, other techniques like CNC milling, laser cutting, or traditional model making may be more suitable.
No, 3D printing is not slow. Compared to traditional construction methods, 3D printing for construction is generally faster, more efficient, and requires less manual labor. However, the speed of 3D printing for construction depends on several factors such as the size and complexity of the structure, the type and size of the 3D printer being used, and the material being printed.
3D printing can be done in one continuous process, without the need for time-consuming assembly of individual components. Because 3D printing creates minimal waste, the work site takes less time to clean up, saving you even more time. However, the printing process for larger structures can still be time-consuming, and in some cases, the printer may need to pause to let the material cure.
This article presented 3D printing in construction, explained what it is, and discussed the various applications of 3D printing in construction. To learn more about 3D printing in other industries, contact a Xometry representative.
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