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3D printing: The birth of a new disruptor in the construction industry


We have all heard about it but not many of us actually know much about the upcoming force that is 3D printing. In the construction industry, 3D printing is a novelty – the link between the digital and the physical. But even though it is becoming more of a reality and something with a  potential to dramatically impact the Australian construction industry as we know it, we are only just now beginning to understand how. 

The Potential

It might have started out as a niche technology but the potential applications of this technology on the construction industry has been a much discussed topic. However, so far, most of these discussions have been mostly theoretical.

 3D printing has the ability to significantly reduce operational costs when delivering construction projects, through shorter project times and fewer wasted resources. Even now, there already are large 3D printers that use concrete-like materials to fabricate a variety of large structural components or even entire buildings. In addition, less waste will be created as components are printed to order during the construction process.

3D printing will allow for projects to be completed in a much shorter timeframe. 

Furthermore, 3D printing will allow for projects to be completed in a much shorter timeframe. Completing buildings might be possible in a course of days or weeks, as opposed to months[GJ5] [AS6] . 

The Reality

While it’s all well and good to talk about the future, the reality is slightly different. There is a lot of hype around 3D printing in construction, but we’re not yet at a stage where buildings can be printed in a commercial manner.

Dr James Gardiner, Lead of 3D Printing Innovation at Laing O’Rourke, spoke to Jobsite about the technology and compared the buzz to another phenomenon in construction.

“It’s like the hype around pre-fabricated houses, that these houses are built in a day, but they don’t mention that the house was being made in a factory for 30 days before that,” he says. 

Dr Gardiner believes there is a great deal of potential for 3D printing. At the same time, he forewarns there is a lot of work to be done in the field before the construction 3D printing can truly take off.

Specifically in research and development, more funds need to be allocated to the application of 3D printing in construction. Dr Gardiner continues, “Currently, the applications of 3D printing within the construction industry is very marginal, and consist of mostly demonstration projects surrounded by a lot of hype. If you want to build a house in a day equivalent to a real house it’s probably going to take a year or more before we get there.” 

The Future

The future looks bright for 3D printing, and the construction industry is definitely going to benefit from the new technology. 

Technically speaking, there are many advantages to 3D printing. While Dr Gardiner is cognizant of the fact that construction 3D printing is less of reality today, he does strongly believe in the opportunities the new technology presents.

The future looks bright for 3D printing, and the construction industry is definitely going to benefit from the new technology.  

“With 3D printing, the geometry comes for free. The costs of 3D printing relate to materials used and the time taken to fabricate the object, whether the geometry is a square box or a complex building like the Sydney Opera House is of little consequence,” says Dr Gardiner. “We’ll be able to use existing materials in smart ways to create these geometries without having to expend time and energy dealing with irregular shapes like in traditional construction. I would definitely advise construction companies to invest in research to understand more about the opportunities for the industry.” 

3D printing presents a great chance to increase efficiencies within Australia’s construction industry. However, it is not going to happen overnight. Significant investments into research and development are required in order to truly take advantage of the seemingly endless opportunities to build more quickly and more efficiently.

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