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Step-by-Step Towards a 3D Printed Future for Construction

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3D printing hasn’t quite arrived but it also hasn’t quite faded away. It would be tempting to categorize 3D printing alongside a plethora of other technologies that are promising to change the world but, for one reason or another, are yet to make a real impact. However, 3D printing is different. Its success is not dependent on popularity, cybersecurity capability, or even a pending technological break-through like many other potentially society-disrupting technologies. Its benefits are so clear, logical, and significant that it really seems like a case of when, and not if, 3D printing will become the standard for manufacturing and construction.

The question of “when?” is still to be answered though. 3D printing has been around for some time, printers have gotten smaller, cheaper, and significantly better. A wide variety of materials are now available to help support the endless applications that 3D printing promises. Its progression has been likened to that of home printing, which, like home computing, entered almost every household in developed nations, during the 1990s.

“3D printing 2012 is where home printing was in 1982. Those old enough to remember tractor-fed paper and even the abysmal thermal printers of yore can relate to this situation,” said John Biggs in a Tech Crunch article 6 years ago. “By 1984, however, Broderbund launched Print Shop and made the run-of-the-mill dot matrix printer far more compelling. The resolution was still spotty and people didn’t see printers as a “threat” per se until we were able to essentially print out a letter-quality page a decade or so later. In short, printers snuck up on us, just as 3D printers will.”

According to Biggs’ forecast, we are now in the equivalent of 1989, just before the personal/home printing breakthrough of the early nineties. Meaning mass 3D printing should be just around the corner. However, as revolutionary as printing documents at home was, with 3D printing you can print mechanical parts, guns, furniture, cars, and even entire buildings - to exact digital specifications, in a fraction of the time, using far less material, and in ways that were never possible before. It may sometimes feel like Printing 3.0 but it is not replacing paper-ink printing, it is an entirely different prospect, most likely with a very different timeline.

3D Printing homes and buildings may then seem further away but as we’ve heard, the technology is ready, so what is the hold-up?

“While there is more proof of concept to be achieved from a technical perspective, as well as cost and speed factors to be enhanced, there is another obstacle to 3D printed construction that will be familiar to anyone involved in technology development – regulation,” we wrote, in a September 2017 article titled: We Can Now 3D Print Buildings, So Why Don’t We? “This regulation is very problematic… everywhere that we want to put 3D printing, we have to face the regulation issues,” confirms Clément Moreau, CEO of French cloud-based 3D printing firm Sculpteo.

While regulation often arises as an obstacle to technological development, it is there to serve society, if a little slowly at times. Technology and regulation must have their to and fro of questions and answers, problems and solutions, in a development process that ensures our products and structures are safe, secure, and ensure our wellbeing as users and consumers. For a new technology that creates places, that we are expected to live and work in for decades, to be accepted it must prove itself able to outperform traditional construction methods across the broad spectrum of potential hazards that may arise.

A recent partnership has taken an assertive step in answering all the questions that regulation may pose. Austin, Texas, based residential building company Sunconomy have partnered with San Francisco-based architects Forge New to lease and license the We Print Houses 3D-printing home system to builders and contractors across the country. The system includes a mobile platform and all the corresponding mechanical systems needed to construct its designs.

The We Print Homes system, according to its website, creates concrete homes that are designed to meet International Building Codes. Their 3D printed homes are also energy-efficient, require less maintenance, and can be built to be resistant to fire, hurricane-force and tornadic winds, hail, flooding, and earthquakes measuring above 8 on the Richter scale. These homes can be built in “a matter of weeks” according to Larry Haines, founder of We Print Houses, offering huge labor-cost and time savings. In addition to the incredible cost savings on building materials provided by the technology.

“The differences between the digital way of building and traditional way of building is that, one: you only use the amount of material you need, because you print layer by layer and after the object is finished and that’s what you have. Second, is that you shorten the time needed from design to production because it’s all in one digital pipeline, and three, because of the digitalization you bring a design closer to the community to people,” explains Hans Vermeulen, CEO of Dutch architectural start-up Aectual, who create sustainable products for the construction industry.

Living up to the safety demands that regulators set is the minimum requirement for the 3D printing construction movement to advance. These extra benefits drive the industry, which in turn puts pressure on regulators and the wider government to unleash and encourage the use of the technology. Wider society has a role to play too, through its demand for low-cost, low-maintenance, fast-build, custom-design, safe homes. Be that in affluent neighborhoods, hurricane belts, earthquake zones, refugee camps, or just to keep up with suburban housing demands.

"What we believe is that the technology will improve exponentially in the upcoming decades, and in that way we can create a network to scale production in a digital way,” continues Vermeulen. “And with that make it available for everyone across the continent and across the globe who are in desperate need of housing because we believe we, as humans, should be able to create the solution, to give everyone a proper house, to give everyone a home."

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