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The Impact of 3D Printing On the Construction Industry

Years ago, the idea of a printer that can create three-dimensional objects seemed like a science fiction machine that would only be possible in the Star Trek universe. However, today, 3D printers are becoming increasingly popular thanks to their myriad of uses. You may be surprised to learn that 3D printing is already being used to model and reconstruct prehistoric fossils, construct human bladders and other organs, design both high-end fashion items and sportswear, and EVEN create bionic arms for children. While its medical and scientific uses are well documented, recently, 3D printers have become more obtainable and are gaining steam in other industries. One industry that stands to gain a lot from the implementation of 3D printing is construction, but before we get to that, let’s go over the basics.

What’s 3D printing?
3D Printing, also known as Additive Manufacturing, is the process of constructing solid three-dimensional objects from a digital file. Layers of material are applied until the object reaches its finished shape and form. You can think of each of these applied layers as thin cross-sections of the final object.

 

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Moving to the Mainstream
In addition to complex computer modeling, the development of 3D printing heavily relies on 3D scanners that capture the world around us. These scanners render our known world into digital forms. The more elaborate and precise these scanners, modeling programs, and printers become, the more advanced the finished product will be.

Though 3D printers were initially found only in high tech labs, the constant advancement of technology is making them easier to come by. There are various hardware manufacturers that already provide detailed 3D scanning devices and software. It’s not hard to imagine that 3D scanning will become a feature as common as cameras on many hand-held devices. In fact, it was rumored that the new iPhone7 would have 3D scanning features. In time, this constant flow of innovation will put the technology and tools for additive manufacturing into household use.

3D printing and the future of construction
3D printing has been looming over the construction industry for some time, and the use of 3D printers has just recently become a reality. Rather than the typical plastic-like materials used in small-scale 3D printers, construction workers can use super-sized printers that use a special concrete and composite mixture that is thicker than regular concrete. That thickness allows the concrete to be self-supporting as it sets, ensuring perfect execution every time.

The benefits of using a 3D printer for construction are numerous. In addition to the amount of labor it can save, using a 3D printer can eliminate design constraints that once kept structures from their full potential. A 3D printer can easily create curved concrete structures as well as hollow structures, which would help save money on materials.

Not only could the widespread use of 3D printing within the construction industry benefit those in the industry, but it might also be a saving grace for the struggling housing market as well. The printers would save on materials and labor, therefore making the construction less expensive. Those savings could be transferred on to the price of the house, increasing the affordability of housing in the U.S.

In fact, the Chinese company Winsun claimed that they recently built 10 houses in one day using 3D printers. The company reported that each house cost a mere $5,000 to create. The same company recently took things a step further, creating a five-story apartment building using a 3D printer. The pieces were printed in their facility and assembled on site, adding in steel reinforcements and insulation. According to Winsun, the 3D printing process saves between 30 and 60% of construction waste, reduces production times by 50 to 70% and can reduce labor costs by 50 to 80%.

Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis, founder of Contour Crafting and Director of the University of Southern California’s Manufacturing Engineering Graduate Program, hopes to take the ability of 3D printing even further with his contour crafting method. He believes that with this method, there is potential to print entire houses at once. According to Business Insider Khoshnevis hopes to develop a gigantic 3D printer capable of printing an entire house in a single run, including the structure and all of its conduits.

3D printing isn’t expected to only affect the housing market, there are large-scale projects using the technology currently underway. Another project in Amsterdam, a bridge that will find its forever home over the Oudezids Achterburgwal canal in the infamous Red Light District, is the brainchild of Dutch startup MX3D, the Amsterdam City Council, and other large companies. This bridge is to be the first complex steel structure constructed by torch wielding autonomous robots that will cut and weld the steel beams after printing them in mid-air.

Other large-scale 3D printing projects include a freeform single-family home design by Tennessee-based Branch Technology to be built in 2017.

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Will robots take our jobs?
The creation of 3D printed homes, bridges, and other objects reflects a switch in the industry towards more technical design and less brute strength. It also reflects a need for safety, efficiency, and lowered costs. For consumers, this could mean that homes and other products become less expensive, and more customized to suit their unique needs and specifications.

Some jobs may be phased out in favor of increased automation, but there will be a growing need for other technical jobs in the manufacturing industry. Putting computers and robots to work for us doesn’t mean that they’ll leave us out of work: jobs will just shift with time. There will always be plenty a need for skilled designers, programmers, and other tech workers, along with welders, machinists, and other maintenance personnel.

3D prototyping and construction, combined with handheld 3D camera imaging and ideas like open source architectural plans could put all aspects of manufacturing and home design into the hands of the people.

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