3-D Printing’s Impact on Construction: Substance vs. Hype

By Andrew Armstrong

3-D printing is starting to revolutionize how things are designed and manufactured, as well as who can build and where things can be produced. And with the potential introduction of giant 3-D printers that can print concrete structures, small time manufacturing possibilities are no longer all 3-D printers are capable of; instead, these technological wonders may be capable of building things as large as homes in the near future.

The newest thing in 3-D technology may be what Behrokh Khoshnevis, a professor at the University of Southern California, has dubbed ‘contour crafting.’ Contour crafting is the concept of designing and creating three-dimensional objects from bottom to top, and bringing that technology to the realm of construction. Before long, Khroshnevis believes that he’ll be able to create entire structures out of pure concrete using 3-D printers. In other words, he may be able to 3-D print a concrete house. If the technology works, building a home would take less than 24 hours in the future.

There are others who are trying to master the art of concrete 3D printing, too; Skanska, a contractor, recently paired up with Foster + Partners to develop a “commercial concrete printing robot.” Richard Buswell, who has been working on the technology for the past eight years, has stated that while the technology is viable within the lab, it is the application of the technology in the real world on which work is being done.

The significance of the marriage between concrete-based construction and 3-D printing was aptly summarized on the Autodesk publication, Line//Shape//Space, which reads, “3D-printing technology is being integrated to produce complex building forms. This union has the potential to reduce the time required to produce such components by several orders of magnitude — from weeks to mere hours.” While Khoshnevis, Skanska and Foster + Partners plan to create a 3-D printer that will create structures out of concrete, a Chinese company recently — not to mention successfully —  printed an entire home’s structures using a 3D printer, and then assembled the home in mere hours.

To create their masterpiece, the Zhuoda Group printed six different modules, ranging from a bathroom to a bedroom, totaling 200 square meters. The house was then assembled in three hours (as a note, the actual printing of modules took approximately 10 days). The cost of building the home was priced at between $400 and $480 per square meter, bringing the total expense of printing and assembling to roughly $81,000 to $96,000. The home was created from materials that were sourced from agricultural and industrial waste, but no more specific information about the materials has been given out. For now, 3-D printing using concrete materials/filament, and building homes and structures using 3-D printing, is not commercially viable. However, it’s not unlikely that with more advancements in relevant technology, 3-D printing could become an integral part of the construction process. If not used to construct homes entirely, it’s safe to say that 3-D printing will, at the very least, be used to create building components or tools.

Andrew Armstrong is a technology enthusiast, business owner, and digital marketing strategist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. A graduate of UC Berkeley in 2003, Andrew enjoys attending Cal Football games with his wife, experimenting with new technology, and chasing around his toddler son. Follow him on Twitter.

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