The next best thing in the construction industry: 3D printers and eco-friendly concrete.

Updated: Aug 27, 2019

The fundamentals of construction have remained more or less unchanged since the last few decades, buildings/structures have been constructed. This includes a mason piling bricks with cement mortar mix. Few inherent challenges of the process are that it is highly dependent on the skills and speed of the manual worker. It takes a lot of time and releases dust, noise and waste as by-products. Efforts are being made to change these very fundamentals of the construction industry.

3D Printing in the construction industry or contour crafting has attracted the attention of technologists and engineers alike. With claims of printing entire houses in a matter of hours, the new applications of the two-decade-old additive manufacturing technology are not limited to prototyping or printing of spare parts of industrial machines/automobiles.

Recent funding activity in the area of material development (UCLA granted $1.5M to develop eco-friendly concrete; Penn state receives a grant to commercialize concrete 3D printing system) signal increased interest of industry giants in the commercialization of the technology. Currently, the bricks are bound with cement. Cement production consumes a lot of energy and the process contributes a significant portion of the overall carbon emissions each year. UCLA has developed an eco-friendly concrete material that uses carbon-di-oxide as a part of its binder. The core team believes that with their process, the carbon footprint could be reduced to a large extent.

The Penn state university is using the funds from the grant to test new reinforcement concepts for a recently developed printable concrete mixture. They claim that their printing methods have advantages such as minimized construction waste, faster construction, less labour, more economical construction and building in limited-resource areas or areas that are hazardous for humans. 

Start-ups across the world have shown significant technological breakthrough to achieve ensure that the technology is considered for wide-scale adoption. Paris based startup, Xtree offers construction 3D printer for rent and purchase. It has developed connected 3D printers and plans to have a worldwide network of such printers by 2025. The initiatives of China-based company Winsun date back to 2013 when it printed a series of 10 homes with its printers. 50% of its concrete mixture is waste gathered from the demolition of buildings. Cybe construction, a Dutch company has launched a mobile 3D printer to print at multiple locations. It includes a robotic arm provided by ABB that extrudes a concrete/mortar mixture that is deposited as desired.

Winsun has entered in a partnership with the Dubai government to 3D print 25% of all the buildings in the Emirate by the year 2030. The initiative by the Dubai government can be seen as a very unique one to promote the city as a hub of global construction 3D printing.  These initiatives and events have been followed by dialogues between governments and technology companies for wide-scale creation of buildings.

The construction industry has been defined by the craftsmanship of architects, masons and civil engineers, generating complex structures with the knowledge of environmental factors and structural/material properties resulting in designs that leave the audience in awe. As mentioned earlier hand-production methods have been abundant. The technology can empower such proficient individuals to create unimaginable structures. Some benefits of the technology are listed below:

Design Freedom: Computer-aided designing has bolstered the architects to create path-breaking models. However, such structures have been difficult to achieve because they were unattainable with legacy methods or were too expensive or labour-intensive. Robotic arms with multiple degrees of freedom, enable developing such designs with absolute ease.

Reduction of steps: The traditional construction industry includes a range of steps (sub industries) such as raw material sourcing, brick/block making, tooling, and finally manual construction. This also includes wastage of unused material. With the robotic printing methods, the whole cycle narrows down to– Raw material sourcing, Material feeding in the printer and Printing. Thus reducing the overall time, efforts and labour needed.

Worker Injuries: Traditional practices in the industry require extensive heavy lifting and manual work that has resulted in injuries and even deaths whereas robotic machines would require less manpower along with the provision of safe spaces to manoeuvre the robotic arms.

Wastage: Since the robots extrude the mortar mixture based on the design instructions provided by architects, the waste of materials is radically reduced to a large extent.

While the technology looks promising, debottlenecking these roadblocks will determine the success of technological cum governmental initiatives.

Lack of regulation: Since this is a nascent technology, it could lead to the beginning of an anticipated infrastructural revolution. With every large scale business opportunity, a range of product/service providers try to have a slice of the pie.  This may also result in a range of issues that are difficult to imagine today. Hence it is essential for governments/organizations to regulate the whole market, before setting off to develop the much celebrated, digitally constructed cities of tomorrow.