Not a brick in the wall… 3D printing in construction

Twenty years ago, few people would have even heard of 3D printing. It’s the kind of technology that would have at best seemed like a work of science fiction, akin to the replicators aboard the Enterprise on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Nevertheless, the first patent for the technology (it was called stereolithography back then) was approved back in 1986.

Today, it’s a technology on which a lot of hopes have been pinned. Out of fertile imaginations, grand ideas have grown. But how can we separate well-meaning enthusiasm from deliberate hyperbole, from the actual reality?

In theory, the practical uses of additive manufacturing seem to be virtually endless. It’s that potential that has created a buzz around the technology that has been excitedly fizzing along for years now. I wanted to get an idea of the applications that the technology could have in different vital industries, such as construction, transport and medicine. So, I spoke to the CEOs of 3D printing companies, to get some input and try to broaden my understanding.

I read a press release that the Saudi firm Elite for Construction and Development had placed an order with Danish 3D printing company COBOD for, what had been described as, the “world’s largest 3D printer”. The Kingdom had grand plans of using the technology to build a staggering 1.5 million new houses within the next ten years.

I caught up with COBOD CEO Henrik Lund-Nielson in an attempt to get a perspective on the implications and applications of 3D printing in the construction industry and to see exactly how the Middle East nation could achieve its ambitious goal.

Henrik was eager to put the brakes on any grand illusions that I may have been harbouring about the state of 3D construction printing.

“We are a baby that has learned to crawl,” he said, referring to the 3D construction printing business as a whole, “not yet walking, not yet running, and definitely not yet grown up.” His perspective is one of realistic expectations peppered with a quiet optimism in an industry so often showered with hyperbole and rife with grandiose claims. “There were general 3D printing companies in the past,” he said “who had a market value of $100-billion, yet actual sales were only around $1-billion. That’s a market value 100 times higher than sales! Let’s avoid such nonsense in this area of the 3D printing industry”

He compared the 3D construction industry to that of mobile phones back in the late 1980s, or car phones as they were known back then. At first, the technology was expensive to buy and run, physically heavy to carry around with batteries the size of suitcases, and inaccessible to most of the population. As the technology developed, the phone batteries got smaller and sometime around 1996, mobile phones began to go mainstream. The costs of the technology came down and everyone wanted in on the action. Fast forward a decade; mobiles phones connected to the internet and became smartphones, and the next generation of the technology was born.

“The suitcase phone did do one thing at least,” Henrik pointed out, “they proved the value of the technology. And it’s exactly the same principle at play here.”

He pointed to the Gartner hype cycle, a graphical representation that charts the birth of a technology, rising up to a peak of inflated expectations, through a trough of disillusionment, up again, slowly this time, a slope of enlightenment and onto a plateau of productivity. Henrik is of the belief that differing 3D applications are in different places as regards the hype cycle. 3D printing for construction, he said, is somewhere around the peak of expectation, and will be on its way down to the trough of disappointment in the not so distant future.

It’s an inevitable, and perhaps necessary, part of the emergence of a new technology. After all, without hype, there’d be less investment and without investment, a much slower technological development.

There’s also the question of resistance from the traditional construction industry. At first, few ever really considered that 3D printing would be something that could be seriously used for buildings, with the tech being referred to as “sausage making” by many of the old guard. There are signs, however, that attitudes are beginning to change and some of the biggest names in the business are wanting a piece of the action. For example, German formwork and scaffolding giant PERI has invested in COBOD, which has given a credibility boost to the company and the wider 3D printing industry. It’s a smart move on PERI’s part, covering their bases should the tech prove to be a real game-changer, but it’s also a sign that 3D printing is being taken seriously as a potential future alternative to the old bricks and mortar paradigm, but once again Henrik is keen to point out that it’s still early days.

“We need to experience a learning curve, to make mistakes, and learn from them. Then we can move towards where we want to be,” he said.

What Henrik and COBOD want to focus on now, are the steps forward. “What is true is that the potential is amazing. But remember that we are a tech company that makes 3D printers, not a construction company. People talk about 3D printed buildings as if they are everywhere, but in truth, there are less than 30 true 3D printed buildings around the world. In most buildings where the technology was utilised only about 20% was made with the 3D printing technology. We can only really now do the concrete walls; the rest is down to the traditional construction industry. It’s not quite as hi-tech as people think!”

But there are, of course, plans to move the technology forward. The Danish government has awarded a grant to COBOD and there are plans to begin looking at a wider application of robotics in construction.

“If we can enable the technology not only do to the concrete walls, but also be able to paint or insulate the walls they’ve just constructed, then we’ll really be beginning to move somewhere.”

And regarding the Saudi vision to build 1.5 million new homes in a decade, Henrik rather diplomatically says, “it’s unlikely to be realised in that time frame, at least not with 3D printers.”

3D printing looks certain to have some future role in construction, but only time will tell as the technology continues to take shape.

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