3D printing has long been advertised as the futuristic solution to many construction problems. Those most passionate about its capabilities claim, “one day we will be able to print entire buildings out of thin air.”
While this, of course, is an exaggeration given the limitations of the technology, this much is true — construction really is a prime candidate for 3D printing since most printers natively work with CAD systems already used in the industry.
For over a decade, these passionate proponents have eulogized the benefits of 3D printing, but how viable is it really?
Pros of 3D Printing Construction
While it all sounds a little sci-fi, and we have yet to realize the full potential of the technology, 3D printing has genuinely proven to be a promising, practical tool for generating site materials. With the ability to create materials on-site, 3D printing has become a reliable technology (albeit in very specific, narrow conditions). Some construction professionals are excited about 3D printing because it is...
Cost-effective: Materials can be printed on an as-needed basis with a level of precision that eliminates material waste.
Efficient: Printing materials on-site cuts out many laborious transportation, storage, and supply chain processes.
Innovative: Thanks to the speed and price of 3D-printed materials, construction professionals can build structures that were never possible with traditional materials. Useful for disaster relief, sustainable housing, and immediate infrastructure like bridges, future-focused thinkers are finding new and exciting ways to use 3D printing technology.
Cons of 3D Printing Construction
And yet, for all the advantages this technology brings to the industry, no technology is the catch-all for all procedural inefficiencies, including 3D printing. For one, it’s a relatively new technology, which means it has yet to be optimized to the specific needs of the construction industry. This has led to hesitancy in some circles as 3D printing is…
Mostly unregulated: 3D printing is still fairly unregulated, so there are few processes in place for actually using 3D-printed materials for residential or commercial use. The government would first need to come up with public safety codes to avoid legal ramifications.
Limited in material types: 3D printing is somewhat limited in what it can produce right now. Materials available through the printer head are limited to just concrete and plastics, so buildings requiring wood or steel components are not eligible.
Incompatible: Architects and engineers might be hesitant about 3D printing because buildings are not always made entirely of materials available through the technology. Sure, it can make casting or extrusion, but a building project requires several different materials that might not be compatible with 3D-printed materials.
While this technology may still be in its relative infancy, it is being used today as a way to quickly, affordably, and efficiently create construction materials and entire structures. 3D printing in the construction industry is estimated to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 33%, and this growth is being driven by innovative projects worldwide.
3D Printing Construction Around the World
MX3D Bridge - Netherlands
Designed by Joris Laarman Lab
This incredible 3D-printed, fully-functional stainless steel bridge was designed to span the Oudezijds Achterburgwal — one of the oldest, most famous canals in Amsterdam. With the goal of showcasing the potential applications of multi-axis 3D printing technology, this structure uses built-in sensors to collect usage and material integrity data.
Office of the Future - United Arab Emirates
Designed by Gensler
Designed for the United Arab Emirates National Committee as the headquarters for the Dubai Futures Foundation, this was the first-ever 3D-printed office building. Made of a special cement mixture, the facility was created layer-by-layer, and the entire process took only 17 days to print. This was a part of Prime Minister Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s strategy to print 25% of Dubai’s buildings by 2030.
3D-Printed Public Restroom - China
Designed by WinSun
As a part of China’s National Tourism Bureau’s effort to “revolutionize toilets,” WinSun developed an entire public restroom — inside and out — from 3D-printed materials. Now accessible in the Da Yang Mountain area in Suzhou, everything was printed off-site in their factory and then transported on-site where it was assembled. Installation only required three workers and a single crane.
Europe Building - Netherlands
Designed by DUS Architects
Another entrant for Amsterdam, this temporary building was designed for the EU Presidency of the Netherlands and was made to house politicians during the 6-month event. Designed to have the appearance of a huge sail draped over the building, the structure was parametrically modelled and locally produced using an XXL 3D printer. At the conclusion of the event, the building was dismantled and the bioplastic parts were shredded for re-use in new printing projects.
World’s Longest 3D-Printed Concrete Bridge - China
Designed by Professor Xu Weiguo
This single-arch structure was created using a 3D printing concrete system developed by the Tsinghua University School of Architecture. The goal was to integrate digital design, cost-efficiency, smart technology, and architectural dynamism within the 3.6-meter wide structure. The structure was constructed from 44 hollowed-out 3D-printed concrete units and was made with composite materials containing polyethylene fiber concrete. This structure began as a 1:4-scale model to demonstrate the scheme’s viability before materials were printed.
World’s Largest 3D-Printed Building - United Arab Emirates
Designed by Apis Cor
This two-story building was a huge step forward for the trade as it dramatically upped the complexity of 3D-printed structures. This design was commissioned by the Dubai government as a proof-of-concept to test the stability of 3D-printed structures against unpredictable Dubai weather. Built by the same company that printed a house in 24 hours, this is reportedly the largest 3D-printed building to date.
Sustainable Housing Neighborhood - USA
Designed by Icon
3D-printed homes in Austin, Texas were designed to be made quickly and cheaply. These structures require low material costs, low labor costs, and quick turnaround to offer low-income housing to the homeless community. The Austin-based startup Icon built six small homes designed for those experiencing extreme poverty and homelessness. Their program Community First! Village is the world’s first 3D-printed neighborhood, and it was conceived as a way to use sustainable construction methods to help drive down the cost of housing.
3D-Printed Bike Bridge - Netherlands
Designed by BAM Infra
Once again, Netherlands proves themselves a leader in 3D printing with this 26-foot bike bridge. It was designed to span a canal and represents a big step forward for the trade as it was one of the first 3D-printed structures made out of reinforced concrete. Made of 800 layers of reinforced, pre-stressed concrete, the structure took about three months to complete.
Coming Soon: Project Milestone - Netherlands
Designed by Houben & Van Mierlo Architecten
Eindhoven, Netherlands will soon be home to the first-ever commercial 3D-printed housing development. While individual homes have been built this way before, Project Milestone is the first commercial, scalable housing development. With houses available in multiple styles and soon available for rent, these structures are made with shapes that would otherwise be difficult and expensive to produce. Plus, the 3D printing process helps reduce material waste for sustainable living.
Coming Soon: Carbon Fiber Composite Structure Beam - Space
Designed by NASA
NASA is developing on-orbit servicing, assembly, and manufacture (OSAM) solutions that will offer a way to refuel and refurbish existing satellite technology. On board, a robot known as SPIDER will carry a 3D printing module to space. The goal is to 3D print a 10-meter long carbon fiber composite structure to support OSAM-1. If successful, the technology will eventually be used to create entire structures in space.
At this point, 3D-printed buildings are experimental projects that show the technology’s eventual capabilities. The full extent of practical applications have yet to be realized, but that hasn’t stopped many from dreaming big. Whether used to print individual materials, or entire structures, 3D printing construction offers several financial, procedural, and sustainability solutions that are too promising to ignore.