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Is 3D Printing Buildings the Way of the Future?

Boasting faster construction, low costs and the ability to decrease construction waste while using recycled materials, using 3D printers to construct buildings appears to offer everything we could ask for.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the 3D-printed buildings that have sprouted up in China over the past year. In a single day, Chinese company Winsun used a 3D printer to manufacture 10 small single-family homes. Later, the same company 3D-printed a five-story apartment building. Winsun’s most recent accomplishment is an elegantly decorated 11,840 square foot mansion, built by an eight-person team in just 30 days, at a total cost of just $161,000.

The company’s accomplishments are certainly noteworthy—but is 3D printing a realistic option for the future of the industry?

How It Works

The ability to print 3D items isn’t new. First developed in the 1980s, 3D printing (also known commonly as additive manufacturing) has seen multiple reincarnations. Over time processes evolved from a basic overlapping sequence to allow for printing by microcasting and spraying materials, which offer enhanced design flexibility.

Among the rapidly growing number of options for 3D printing, there are currently two favorite methods. The first, D-Shape printing, uses a process known as stereolithography to print one layer of photo-reactive resin at a time before curing with a UV laser and proceeding on to the next. When ready, completed layers are constructed together.

Contour crafting, meanwhile, uses a quick-setting, concrete-like material to build without the need for UV curing. Under this method, the 3D printer continues building upward until floors or ceilings are set in place on a complete unit, with structural components like plumbing, wiring and utilities inserted as layers are printed.

In building construction, both methods often feature hollow walls with zig-zag or latticework reinforcements inside, making structures sturdy and also providing room for insulation.

Benefits of 3D-Printing

The paybacks supporting 3D-printing are hard to ignore. According to CNET.com, "this process can save from 30 to 60 percent of construction waste; can decrease production times by 50 to 70 percent; and can decrease labor costs by 50 to 80 percent."

Indeed, from an environmentally-friendly point of view, 3D printing is hailed for its ability to cut down on waste by using leftover products, such as glass and steel, as part of the cement-based printing substance.

As Chinese company Winsun demonstrated, 3D-printing is can push your project completion rates sky-high. The machines are flexible, easily able to switch between printing foundations, walls and other forms of all sizes.

And most important, 3D printing is exceedingly cost efficient. Project materials, time and labor are all reduced with this new technology, so you can offer clients custom builds at significantly lower prices than you’ve ever been able to before.

So what’s the catch?

What to Watch Out For

The first question that may come to mind is, what are the costs associated with securing, running and maintaining a 3D printer large enough for building construction? Well, time will have to tell—but based on historical evidence, costs are going down. In 2010, a desktop 3D printer had a $20,000 price tag, whereas three years later the same size device could be purchased for less than $1,000.

But what if 3D printing is just a fad? Or, if it succeeds, what if its popularity develops faster in other industries—thus restricting it from reaching its full potential in construction? Not to worry: according to a recent Forbes roundup of 3D printing forecasts, there’s compelling evidence that 3D printing in construction is here to stay.

The concept of 3D printing is already gaining traction, and its current popularity is nothing compared to what you’ll be seeing in the future. The market for 3D printing technologies is estimated to grow from $2.5 billion in 2013 to a conservatively forecasted $16.2 billion by 2018, with business and enterprise activity (yes, that includes the construction industry) estimated to account for 80 percent of 3D printer sales.

The Future of 3D-Printing in Construction

We’ve already seen that 3D-printed structures have become a reality, and we know that 3D-printed buildings are strong, stable and worthy of residence. So how long until 3D printing becomes the norm?

According to Behrokh Khoshnevis, director of the Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Techniques at the University of Southern California, it won’t be long. He’s gone on record stating that "I think in about five years you are going to see a lot of buildings built this way.

At Building Solutions, we’re constantly monitoring trends and technology to stay on the cutting edge of construction so we can pass that knowledge on to you. While 3D printing may be what’s next, you can already make your Pre-Fab build more efficient with BIM. If BIM isn’t already part of your development, here are ten reasons why it should be.

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