The construction industry is changing, due to 3D printing making it cheaper and faster to construct buildings and other structures by automating building processes using robotic solutions extruding concrete. In the past five years, 3D construction printing (3DCP) has started to catch up with the proliferation of AM applications and improvements seen in other industries such as healthcare and industrial, fundamentally changing one of the world’s largest industries.
3D printers used for construction generally fall into two categories: gantry-style setups and robotic arms, with the first being the dominating solution for on-site printing of entire building structures. In addition, players in the 3D construction printing industry are categorized by being either solely technology providers (such as COBOD International); end-to-end turnkey building providers that also act as contractors, using their own proprietary materials; or even as General Contractors that manage the entire construction of new buildings from start to finish.
The use of 3D construction printing has been growing rapidly in the last five years, not only in terms of buildings made, but also with respect to the type of building or structures being made. To name a few 3DCP applications and examples, COBOD’s machines alone have been used by our partners to print one-, two-, and three-story buildings up to 4,100 ft2 (e.g. PERI Group.) They’ve built schools (Holcim/14 Trees), wind turbine tower bases at 30 ft (GE Renewable Energy), and many other structures on six continents.
For residential housing, which has been the area of most interest so far, 3DCP addresses up to a maximum of 45 percent of the total cost of constructing the building. This is because some cost types cannot yet be addressed by the printing technology: These include finishing/surfaces, windows, doors, and hidden components such as mechanicals, electrical, or plumbing. For more commercial and industrial applications like the wind turbine towers, the technology addresses a much higher percentage, up to 80 percent of the total cost.
With the 3DCP market still in its infancy, market size estimates for the industry are yet too premature to trust. However, due to the size of the construction market, if 3DCP was used on just 0.01 percent of construction sites, the market size would still be massive.
There are four key benefits of 3DCP: automation, speed, improved sustainability, and added design freedom. Here I will only touch upon the first two advantages.
Automation reducing costs: The construction industry is among the least automated/digitized of all sectors with a major potential for increasing productivity. From 1947 to 2010 in the US, productivity increased 8× in manufacturing and 16× for agriculture, while construction hardly saw any productivity gains. As a consequence of this and other factors, the cost of acquiring a home has increased dramatically in recent years, partially generating a larger and larger mismatch between supply and demand, with the US alone facing a gap of four million homes. The situation is worsened lately by dramatic increases in material prices (e.g., timber and steel) and a general lack of skilled labor. While 3DCP alone cannot solve all these structural issues, automating processes reduces costs by addressing the labor shortage, with the printers only requiring 3 people to operate. Lately, solutions have also been developed among others by COBOD by which it is possible to use ordinary concrete for 3DCP (instead of the many times more expensive mortars), among the world’s cheapest construction materials.
Improved speed for faster project execution: Due to the increased experience with mastering the use of the 3DCP technology by more and more companies, we are not far from seeing the walls of a typical 2,000 ft2 home being 3D printed in as little as five workdays. Doing the same with conventional methods such as stick-framing or masonry would take considerably longer and involve more workers. As an example of the easy learning curve of 3DCP, in 2020 it took our partner PERI Group 36 days to 3D print their first building, a 2-story 1,700 ft2 home in Germany. This is equivalent to making approximately 50 ft2 per day. When they completed their second projects a few months later, a much larger 3-story 4,100 ft2 five-apartment unit they reduced the print time to just 21 days, equivalent to approximately 200 ft2 per day. They quadrupled their productivity from the first to the second project. How much further will they bring down the printing time when executing their 10th project? What about project number 100? With just a doubling of the productivity—and that seems highly likely based on the results so far—the five-workdays target for a 2,000 ft2 building will soon be reached.
3DCP naturally faces barriers to unlock its full potential, such as updated building codes/standards and labor upskilling. However we are certain that the technology will take the construction industry from one technological S-curve to the next, bringing with it the abovementioned benefits and more.
Compare the first PC laptops and mobile phones of the 1980s with their counterparts today: 3DCP will embark on a similar journey of improvement and widespread usage experienced by these other breakthrough technologies, driven by three factors. First, the printers will become more reliable and faster. Second, the 3D printers will increase in scale, allowing for bigger projects. Thus, it is likely that within one year we will start seeing printers being able to print buildings with up to five or even six floors. Third, new use cases will be developed, e.g., a bigger focus on commercial buildings and structures, not just residential housing, where the 3DCP technology can address a larger share of the total cost.
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