Can You 3D-Print Your Home?
Disruption in the Construction Industry
July 27, 2017, Bruno Jacobsen
When we talk about 3D printing, many people first picture small-scale products, such as car parts or smartphone covers. But what happens when we attempt to build larger structures, like houses or bridges, with 3D-printing?
Earlier this year, a new 3D printing system was unveiled by researchers at MIT. The system's design basically consists of a tracked vehicle with one large robotic arm which is attached to another smaller, "precision motion" robotic arm. The latter supports different types of nozzles that can spray a variety of "printed materials." This versatile system was used to build a 3.7-meter-high dome in less than 14 hours (the time-lapse video is available here).
This is not the first large structure being build using 3D-printing technology. Last year, Dubai inaugurated a 3D-printed office which is fully functional. The company that built it, WinSun from China, has claimed to "mass-produce" 10 houses in less than 24 hours, and has already 3D-printed a 6-storey apartment building. These are just two success stories that make us wonder about the potential impacts of 3D printing in the construction industry.
While more research needs to be done, the potential benefits are clear. According to PwC, the technology allows companies to build homes or other structures much more quickly and with fewer wasted resources. Another benefit for construction companies comes in the form of reduced labour costs, as they tend to be major contributors to their expenses. The technology further allows us to build theoretically safe and sound structures that could not be built without additive manufacturing, which may contribute not only to reduced costs but also an increase in aesthetic considerations and creativity.
But, like most future trends, it does not come without some issues or stepping stones. For one thing, reduced labour costs could imply loss of jobs for many people in the industry. While a part of the workforce may adapt and work with the machines, there is invariable a large portion that could be rendered useless in the face of machines that can do the job just as well, if not better, and faster.
On top of that, while 3D printing a small object or even a larger object with some imperfections is generally no big deal, in construction this is another matter. Whether we are 3D printing moulds for beams or struts, or entire walls directly, small gaps or imperfections could cause the compression, tensile or torsion strengths of the structures to be much smaller, leading to collapse.
As The Guardian suggests, it is possible that new regulations will have to be implemented as the technology involves. For many years, we have used the same standards for different types of materials that are used in construction. So whatever new inventive designs may spring from advances in this new technology, our foremost concern would be in maintaining a reasonable standard of safety.
Nevertheless, this emergent technology has the potential to bring deep change to the construction industry. From mass-produced homes to complex and intricate structures, it could also have a deep social impact - imagine cheap, mass-produced homes for the poor - and change the landscape of many cities around the globe. And given how fast it is progressing, we may see some of it within a decade from now.