It’s no secret that 3D printers are getting bigger and bigger. For a few years now, even the bigger desktop 3D printers have even grown to a size where that term seems to be a misnomer. With this increase in size, newer applications are also being brought to the forefront. Perhaps the most exciting development has been in the field of construction.
Various companies have arisen in the past few years with the sole aim of constructing houses and buildings with additive manufacturing technologies. So far, these companies have demonstrated that the advantages of 3D printing apply on the large scale as well. 3D printed houses are cheap and require smaller crews to build. Additionally, they also allow for the implementation of odd designs and new, sustainable materials. It can even reduce material waste and be less messier.
Companies Operating in Large-scale Construction
Even though this is a new field it has been undergoing massive growth in the past 2 years. There are a few different systems out there. Companies like Apis Cor claim to be able to build 100 sq meter houses within 24 hours. They do this via construction 3D printer, automated mortar preparation and feeding unit and mobile silos. The company prints the structure using a 360° robot arm and then also insert the electrical circuitry. They use a mortar mix on cement base with the addition of special additives, including reinforcing ones. While it is only high enough to do one floor, it can be propped up by a crane or on a platform to do subsequent ones.
Similarly, a robotic printer built by MIT also uses a robotic arm principle. This version lays down layers of foam that solidifies but the researchers have stated that it may be possible to use other materials in the future. The machine can be seen in action in the video below:
Other existing construction methods use a hybrid mixture of technologies to complement the 3D printing side. One such example is the On Site Robotics project. This collaboration the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia and Tecnalia featured an ambitious plan to merge a panoply of modern technologies to created a highly advanced, new construction method.
The project itself was very ambitious. Firstly, the 3D printer’s extruder is controlled by Cogiro, a cable-driven parallel robot with automated CNC control. The cables operated with easily assembled servo-controlled winches that regulate the movement.. Secondly, it made use of not just 3D printing but also drone technology to monitor the process and the application of sustainable materials. As a result, they managed to create a building made from 100% biodegradable construction materials.
Similar projects include contour crafting design, which has been used to construct bridges and buildings all over the world. Extensive projects are underway in China, where a group of companies is building tons of 3D printed houses.
A slightly more out there example of 3D printing and construction is in how the university of Ottawa recently built machines with the potential to turn lunar soil into construction materials. It can be used to build self-repairing machines and even lunar bases.
Seeing as how much work is going on to get 3D printed construction off the ground, why hasn’t it taken off yet?
Obstacles to Adoption of 3D Printing in Construction
At this point, 3D printed homes are novel and not yet a practical business model. Despite all the advantages stated earlier, there are quite a few kinks to work out. The big problem is the lack of diversity in materials. At the moment, many printers are not capable of processing all the materials necessary for complex housing and building projects or at least not enough to satisfy an industry like construction which can be dependent on diverse demands and contractor’s demands.
Another issue is that current printers tend to only work with one material, making them impractical. A company cannot be reliant on a machine with this little versatility. On top of that, there’s the issue of the consequences of errors in digital files.
Storage and transportation bring up another grave concern. The machines themselves are often massive. Finding space in a city block for regular construction equipment can be hard enough, let alone a 3D printer that often needs a crane to suspend it for extended periods of time to complete every little corner in a multi-story building. In comparison, manual labourers can get around far more easily.
There’s also the issue of how construction companies operate. They can’t put down money for a machine that is useful for a very narrow range of possibilities in terms of materials and space of operation. It would be financially irresponsible at this time to invest in a machine that brings up such uncertainties for an industry where projects can vary so wildly from one client to the next.