IS 3-D Printing the future of housing?

Yves Behar 3-D printed community in Latin America. Photo: Dezeen

Technology has become a key component in many sectors of the economy.  And like every other industry, new technologies are constantly being introduced to construction by companies trying to improve their productivity, safety, and quality. However, the decision on which technology to adopt is one of the challenges that this industry has to surmount.

Available data on the criteria for choosing appropriate building technology consider an efficient technology as one that saves time, reduces human error and importantly, provides a possibility of automation.

Depending on the complexity of the project, the criteria suggest that a number of local parameters must be evaluated before concluding on the most appropriate building technology to adopt. These factors include availability of the technology, human labor input, cost of work and wastelessness among other parameters.

3-D Printing technology

In the recent years, a new form of automated manufacturing technology known as Three-Dimensional printing has been applied in various fields due to its significant advantages which include minimum material wastage and little human intervention in manufacturing processes.

3-D printing technology

According to 3-D Printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a printing process that involves making three-dimensional objects from digital models by applying many thin layers of a quick-drying material on top of each other.

The process works by laying down thin layers of material in the form of liquid or powdered plastic, metal or cement, and then fusing the layers together. The computer-aided technology can be used to produce complex shape geometries and has been widely used in medical sciences, tool making and, in the car and aircraft manufacturing.

Most commonly used 3-D technology

Printing methods include extrusion, additive wielding and powder bonding. While extrusion is used to ensure that an even and consistent amount of material is released and used in the printing process, additive wielding also known as Additive Manufacturing (AM), enables the depositing of materials to create part or whole of the object being printed.

3-D Printing in building and construction

With the growing trend and popularity in 3-D Printing, the construction industry is not left behind. Companies around the world are beginning to make a breakthrough by using the technology to print materials needed for building and construction purposes.

From 2004 when the first 3D printed wall was attempted in South Carolina according 3D natives Blog, the innovation has exploded in the industry. However, history attributes the first 3D Printing efforts to the early 80’s when a rapid prototyping technique was developed. Until early 2000’s many innovative technologies which focused mainly on industrial applications continued to be introduced.

The application of 3D Printing technology in building and construction was necessitated by the ability of the technology to use different materials and fabricate different complex shapes onsite and offsite. Besides the freedom of design which it permits, a major characteristic of the technology is the power of automated production.

And despite the technology being in its early stages in the construction industry, it has improved the traditional building strategies by reducing the need for human labor in construction and high capital investment in the process. Using layers of concrete manufactured from the technology, one can comfortably build a home within 24 hours and at a lower cost compared to the traditional building approaches.

Advantages of 3D Printing

The technology is poised to bring significant benefits to the construction industry. In terms of customization, it permits one the freedom of design.

Design freedom enables architects to build complex designs that are otherwise too expensive or too labour-intensive, if the conventional construction methods were used. The benefit of this freedom is that it allows for more innovation and creativity which may give birth to more unique and complex designs in the industry.

On material usage, 3D Printing is economical. Being an additive process, which means that it only uses actual number of materials needed to build a structure, less materials than the traditional manufacturing processes are used. This reduces its negative impact on the environment since less waste is produced.

Another advantage of using 3-D Printing technology in building and construction is that it reduces human error. Construction sites are synonymous with deaths and injury cases. Since the technology is automated through programming, injuries and fatalities are less likely to occur at the site of construction.

Challenges of 3D Printing

Even though the technology promises a great future in the building and construction industry, a number of setbacks still characterize it.

3-D printed school in Malawi

One of the greatest challenges facing the adoption of the technology is the high cost of 3-D printers. The cost of acquiring and maintaining the machines is too high for most companies to afford which is likely to slow down its uptake. Moreover, the machines require a special skill set from operators which is evidently in short supply in the industry.

Currently there are no established laws and regulations in most dispensations on the operationalization of this type of technology in the building and construction industry. And for most countries where technology is still lagging, its adoption will take relatively longer.

As the world rears to go for automated and autonomous production in the building and construction industry using 3-D Printing, early adopters of technology may want to know the sustainability levels of this approach to building and construction including the ability of the structures to withstand extreme weather to gain full potential of the technology in the construction industry.


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