3D Printing: Next Big Tech for Construction?
July 31, 2012
What exactly is 3D printing and how does it apply to the construction industry? There are a few schools of thought and potential applications for this technology—and some in the industry see it as possibly being the next big tech for construction.
At a basic level, 3D printing produces pure white and color physical models quickly and easily from 3D CAD (computer-aided design), BIM (building information modeling), and other digital data. Many AEC (architecture, engineering, and construction) firms have adopted 3D printing as part of design development and project delivery.
One example comes out of India. iKix, www.ikix.in, Tamil Nadu, India, an architectural modeling service company, began using 3D printing in order to provide architects and the rest of the construction team with models. According to the company, 3D printing is more than just a prototype; it has become a project-management tool.
Due to the fact the 3D models are created directly from the CAD data, the models are more accurate. In the end, the company has saved 3% to 8% in the construction budget due to reduced time, labor, and materials costs, as well as improved communication.
3D Systems, www.zcorp.com, Rock Hill, S.C., is one such provider that offers 3D printing for the AEC industry—and even just announced its first 3D printer for the home. With 3D printers available to both consumers and businesses, the tech is set to take off. The company says people familiar with even basic CAD tools such as SketchUp can quickly create and make 3D prints.
While printing models is one form of 3D printing, there is another method that may have an even larger impact on the construction industry going forward.
Companies such as Contour Crafting, www.contourcrafting.org, have created a technology that has the potential to automate the entire construction process through ‘3D printing.’
The company, headed up by Behrokh Khoshnevis, professor, University of Southern California, www.usc.edu, Los Angeles, uses a method which it calls ‘3D printing’ to create a single house or colony of houses, each with possibly a different design. Potential applications include emergency, low-income, and commercial housing.
Another research group at Loughborough University, www.lboro.ac.uk, Leicestershire, U.K., has been looking at the potential benefits of 3D printing—or what the institute refers to as an ‘additive manufacturing process.’ The organization describes the process as taking information created from computer-generated models and exporting to a 3D printer, which then builds up a model, or a component, layer by layer. The virtual model is, in effect, materialized. At Loughborough, instead of using powder and glue, they are experimenting with concrete to create large-scale building components.
According to Loughborough University, additive manufacturing techniques are able to also create complicated shapes and can solve some of the complexity issues found in construction.
With advances in CAD and BIM, the next step is taking what is done in the office and applying it in the field. While the research surrounding 3D printing provides interesting food for thought for the future of technology, the fact of the matter is we still haven’t reached the point where these systems can run conduit or install HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) on large-scale projects.