Pros and Cons of 3-D Printing in Construction

It’s captured the imagination of architects and builders everywhere, but is the technology ready to deliver?  

3-D printers are the cool new toy everyone wants to play with.

They’re already being used to produce eclectic, one-off structures. Builders and designers have dreamed up ideas on how to print homes made of mud, clay or even recycled construction materials to quickly create reliable housing in poverty-stricken countries or areas hit by natural disasters. NASA is even looking into whether the technology could be used to build a base on the moon.

But the number of builders who are regularly using the technology is small. Perhaps the most ambitious plan has come out of the United Arab Emirates, which aims to be the world's leader in 3-D printing innovation and has set a goal for 25 percent of all buildings in Dubai, its largest city, to be 3-D-printed by 2030. Builders in Dubai unveiled the world's first 3-D-printed office building last year.

The prospect of 3-D printing is attractive to many builders because of the potential for significant savings. According to Chinese company Winsun, 3-D printing can reduce construction waste by 30 percent to 60 percent, save 50 percent to 70 percent on the schedule and decrease labor costs by 50 percent to 80 percent.

But in that last statistic lies one barrier to widespread development and use of 3-D printing technology in the construction industry: job losses.

Despite the labor shortage in construction, there are still enough workers to feel threatened by such a massive disruption. Material manufacturers, suppliers and everyone else down the supply chain could also feel the pinch. Pressure from unions and trade groups is likely to keep implementation at a measured pace, at least in the United States. But on a positive note, as the 3-D printing industry grows, it will create more jobs.

Other barriers: The printers are expensive and cumbersome to move from site to site, in particular the Big Delta, which is 40 feet tall. However, manufacturers such as Branch Technology have made some progress with freeform printers that are not limited to structures that can fit underneath a monolithic frame.

But even the most advanced 3-D printers in use right now can work with only a few materials at most and are limited to what can be extruded from the printer head. That leaves steel and wood out of the picture.

Design is a mixed bag. As long as a digital design is entered correctly into the printer, construction errors are virtually non-existent. However, a single input error means the entire structure will be out of synch with the specifications, creating the potential for a complete loss.

Perhaps the biggest construction industry hurdle 3-D printing will have to overcome in the United States involves building codes. The country's building codes are based on the use of traditional building materials and processes and were arrived at through decades of “tweaking.” Most structural codes vary from state to state and sometimes even county to county. So the 3-D printing industry could have a long road ahead of testing and trying to gain approval.

As with any exciting new technology, it will take time for 3-D printing to find its footing. Time will tell whether it proves to be a useful addition to — or even replacement for — existing construction methods or remains an impressive but limited-application tool.