Additive manufacturing, otherwise known as, 3D printing, is having what you might call “a moment” in construction. The technology is prized for its ability to quickly produce all kinds of structures for pennies on the dollar compared to traditional construction methods. Typically, little more than a set of CAD instructions and some kind of robotic appendage is needed.
With the global labor shortage constricting workforces and the worsening housing crisis, 3D printing’s ascension is borne out of necessity as much as anything else. No matter the cause, signs of its cautious arrival on the scene as a legitimate construction method are cropping up around the world.
When it comes to ambitious architecture, few cities on earth can touch Dubai. Its skyline is impressive; the city rises out of the desert like an ultra-modern Land of Oz and boasts the world’s tallest building Burj Khalifa, towering an eye-popping 2,717 feet, more than half a mile, over the coastal Persian Gulf mega-city. However, Dubai is making what might be its most ambitious architecture move yet—it recently decreed that all new construction in the city is to be 25 percent 3D printed by 2025.
Reducing Need for Labor
“In 2025, based on Dubai Municipality’s regulations, every new building in Dubai will be 25% 3D printed,” the Dubai Future Foundation wrote. “This move will start from 2019, starting at 2% with a gradual increase to the strategic goal.”
The Foundation, whose goal is to solidify the United Arab Emirates city as a Middle East tech hub, believes the mandate will reduce the need for construction labor by 70 percent and slash building costs by as much as 90 percent, as reported by FastCompany.
Such a reduction in workforce might seem alarming, but in a country notorious for its exploitative labor practices, the fewer workers put in harm’s way the better. As UAE is certainly not alone in this distinction, lifting workers out of dangerous working conditions is a potential benefit of construction adopting 3D printing globally.
Using 3D to Combat Housing Shortage
The technology is also being applied to address the lack of suitable housing in developing nations. Moreover, it can provide rapid, low-cost shelters for natural disaster victims, where disrupted basic infrastructure could make large-scale construction vehicle deployment impossible
In those locations, conventional construction would be prohibitively expensive or completed too slowly to address the immediate needs of local residents.
The U.S. Military is also looking toward 3D printing to advance its humanitarian efforts. The Marine Corps recently made headlines for printing and deploying a concrete pedestrian bridge during a logistics training exercise at Camp Pendleton in California, Construction Dive reported. For the first time such a bridge was produced in the field in the Western Hemisphere.
Silicon Valley nonprofit New Story made waves at SXSW in Austin last year with the debut of the Vulcan printer, which can produce a four-room house in less than 24 hours at a cost of less than $4,000. According to FastCompany, the company uses its partnerships with technology firms to construct low-cost housing in countries affected by natural disasters or extreme poverty, such as Haiti and El Salvador.” In terms of sheer output, China-based construction firm Winsun has made a notable showing— back in 2014, it managed to 3D print 10 complete homes in a single day. According to FastCompany, Winsun also 3D printed an office building for the Dubai Future Foundation and appears to be collaborating with it as part of Dubai’s 2025 mandate.
Elsewhere in China, the world’s longest 3D printed concrete pedestrian bridge opened to the public in January. The 86-foot-long bridge spans Wisdom Bay pond in Shanghai.
To be sure, considering the current development of technology, goals like Dubai’s are lofty, and success is far from certain. However, big bets on a nascent technology surely keep the ball rolling on evolution and adoption, and from the Middle East to Asia to Silicon Valley, more companies than ever are pushing the limits of 3D printing.
3D Driving Robot and Human Partnership
As for its overall impact on the human workforce, the Boston Consulting Group said in a recent report it envisions a future where 3D printing in construction is more of a partnership between robot and human. That vision “involves retaining several separate procedures and autonomous and semi-autonomous systems…integrating them with human workers,” FastCompany writes.
3D printing is still in its relative infancy. Nevertheless, its potential to simultaneously address issues plaguing both society and the construction industry definitely makes it an interesting technology to keep an eye on.
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