3D Printing: A Construction Revolution

The popular image of the construction industry has been largely unchanged for a century. Trends in building aesthetics may change throughout the decades, but the way they get built has mostly stayed consistent. But as we’ve seen in many other recently disrupted industries, this mode of operation is rapidly changing. 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has the potential to completely revolutionize the field of construction and perhaps, by extension, civilized society.

In this futuristic construction landscape, buildings will go straight from the design process to manufacture. Even skyscrapers could one day be assembled with 3D-printed parts, saving time and money by cutting out layers of middlemen. This more efficient process would also eliminate the possibility of mistranslations between the design concept and the actual built materials. Components can be made to order, cutting down on waste and overconsumption. Some estimates—perhaps a little sunny—put construction savings from 3D printing at 50%. Whether or not costs go down this far, it’s almost inevitable that many aspects of construction will be streamlined with the adoption of this additive manufacturing process.

The initial steps have already been taken. The world’s first fully-occupied 3D-printed structure, an office in Dubai, opened in 2016. Though impressive, it exists mostly as a proof of concept. 3D-printed components assembled by workers are perhaps the simplest manifestation of this budding technology and are perhaps the avenue through which it will catch on. It’s not a stretch to imagine brick-and-mortar giving way to 3D-printed building blocks, and the mere possibility points toward an exciting future.

The technology has the potential to go much further than simple construction materials. 3D printers will one day be built with the capacity to construct entire buildings, eliminating the need for discrete materials entirely. The concept, known as contour crafting, was developed by a USC engineering professor and will utilize a massive crane-like 3D printer that can build entire houses, layer by layer, incorporating different rooms, walls, and ceilings as the structure rises. This method, once perfected, promises to produce an entire 2,000 square foot house in under 24 hours, with extraordinary potential for both high-end building and emergency disaster relief.

Some scientists are thinking bigger in an alternate way: by going smaller. The Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia has tested a squadron of what they’re calling Minibuilders, small robots that move on their own and may one day be able build an entire skyscraper from the ground up. The bots are programmed to move independently around a structure, adding materials and refining surfaces in a multi-step process. A swarm of roomba-sized robots may one day be responsible for creating the largest buildings in the world.

Not even the sky is the limit for 3D-printed construction. The European Space Agency has enlisted renowned London architecture firm Foster + Partners to design a 3D-printable habitat for potential colonization of the moon. Due to the extremely high cost of transporting materials into space, the planned moon base will utilize lunar soil, with a 3D-printed shell launched onto the moon, then filled in with lunar soil that’s been transformed into building material by automated robots. Moon-based living quarters might be prepared completely by 3D printing before the first human occupants ever arrive.

Returning to Earth, we need a pragmatic approach for this revolution to happen. Current building codes have been developed over the course of decades to account for modern building practices. A complete change in these practices means that new regulations will need to be developed to ensure that these buildings are safe for occupants. Many other potential hurdles will need to be overcome, including testing the viability of materials like cement in a 3D-printing model. The future, it would seem, is in the skies and beyond…though at present, 3D-printed buildings have not quite reached the second floor.