Can 3D Printing Revolutionize the Jobsite?

Are 3D printers the next piece of technology to have a significant presence at the construction jobsite?

The technology offers some clear advantages, but obstacles remain. However, industry observers believe 3D printing ultimately will play a great role in construction. The question becomes: Does it have the potential to revolutionize the market?

While 3D printing of an entire building and other structures might not yet be ready for commercial use today, the technology might have some smaller, practical applications that construction professionals can take advantage of immediately, perhaps including the creation of tools or parts.

3D printing is not new. Indeed, it’s been used in a variety of industries for some time now. Deloitte describes 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, as a technique that builds objects layer by layer using a variety of materials that include polymers, metals and composites.

The process is additive, with materials being deposited only where needed, resulting in less material waste and enabling much faster production of low quantity structures, explains IDTechEx, a market research firm.

There are concerns, however, including the quality and durability of the materials produced. Still, builders and contractors should not dismiss the developing technology. It could ultimately play a significant role in the day-to-day work at the jobsite and offer another means for builders to realize lower material and labor costs.

Questions Abound

A 2014 study conducted by the Stanford University Center for Integrated Facility Engineering shows there are many questions to be answered when it comes to the future of 3D printing in construction. The study asks, for example, what steps could be taken to speed up the process of the research related to the 3D printing of buildings and the application of the technology in the construction industry.

A subsequent study performed by the center maintains 3D printing is unlikely to proliferate the construction market very soon. However, contractors should be mindful of other benefits offered by the technology such as the mass production of custom parts and the production of components with complex geometries.

The technology has advanced in the European construction market. For example, a company in The Netherlands, MX3D, recently created a pair of 3D printing robots to print a small bridge over a canal in Amsterdam. The project will be completed using industrial multi-axis robots with 3D tools. The company is using Autodesk software designed specifically for the project. Dutch construction firm Heijmans also is a partner in the project.

Lux Research agrees that the technology should play a more significant role in construction. The industry is using the technology to produce customized niche parts, enhance design flexibility, and save time and costs, according to a 2015 study. However, the use of 3D printing in key components of construction such as framework, foundation, flooring, exterior and interior walls, and HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) are only in the conceptual phase.

3D printing has successfully played a significant role in other industries, and its emergence as a more consistently used tool in construction is not far off, many experts agree.

“Now buildings are becoming part of the portfolio. Many 3D printing applications in construction, such as interior decorations and lighting optics, are commercial,” says Jerrold Wang, associate, Lux Research. “Challenges abound, such as developing the appropriate materials and meeting building codes, but so do opportunities to save construction time and enable design flexibility.”

Doubts Remains

Yet not everyone is convinced the emergence of 3D printing in construction will occur anytime soon. 

For example, Jon Harrop, director of IDTechEx, says the future for both robotics and 3D printing in construction is relatively small and slow growing compared to other markets, and he doesn’t see that dynamic changing anytime soon.

“Companies are finding it really hard to break into the construction market,” Harrop points out. “My interpretation is that construction is a traditionally very labor-intensive industry and, consequently, radical changes like construction robots and 3D printers require a really clear and substantial value add.”

He adds many contractors fail to understand the potential of 3D printing. “At the moment, most of the 3D printers and robots I see aimed at the construction industry are viewed really as incremental improvements that bring a scary unknown risk because of their immaturity.”

Harrop adds that Robert Kay, a professor at Loughborough University, has researched 3D printing for many years and agrees it is unlikely the technology will have a major impact in construction in the near future.

Adoption of 3D modeling in construction likely would present other challenges, Harrop continues.

“If the construction industry were to adopt either robotics or 3D printing in a big way, 3D modeling would have to be an integral part of that,” he notes “Realtime positioning is an essential component of many applications of robots and 3D printers, and that would require new equipment. The ability to do positioning without something really intrusive like a gantry is essentially an open problem. People are still putting out ideas like using a crane with the print head dangling from wires or even using a swarm of small mobile robots.”

Harrop, however, has not discarded the possibility of 3D printing eventually making strides in construction.

“I think in the long term we will see construction done more autonomously by a hybrid between a 3D printer and a robot, but the move to this will continue to be slow. After all, there is a huge amount of inertia in the incumbent approaches,” Harrop concludes.

3D printing has the potential to save time and money while improving efficiencies. The technology may not be ready for the jobsite immediately, but contractors would be wise to keep a close eye on its progress.

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