Accustomed as we are to urban sprawl and the bigger, grander structures it engenders, it may come as a surprise to many of us that the construction industry hasn’t changed much in the last hundred years. There are bigger and grander projects now, of course – larger skyscrapers, longer bridges, and other marvels of engineering – but the basic process of construction, which involves brick-laying, wood framing, and concrete casting, has remained pretty much the same. Some, or all, of that may change if 3D printing and robots arrive on the scene to deliver on the promise they show in research laboratories and experimental projects around the world.
We have been hearing of the use of 3D printing, automation, and robots in construction for some years now. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich unveiled a brick-laying robot in 2015. The Eindhoven University of Technology showed off a 3D concrete printer the same year. At DARPA Robotics Challenge, humanoid robots used power tools to try and complete certain tasks. There are a few commercial players in the U.S., China, and some other countries, who employ the use of robots and 3D printing for brick-laying, and for building prefabricated walls, roofs, and floors.
All these researches and experiments aim for the same thing – to make construction safer, cheaper, faster, and more creative. The market for this technology, while still very small, is gaining ground in some developed countries. Dubai, in fact, has set a target for 25 percent of buildings to be 3D-printed by 2030. Although 3D printing technology still has a long way to go before it becomes commercially viable, it provides food for thought to architects and engineers, who can now re-examine the relationship of a building with its people and its environment. For, 3D printing allows a home to be customized to its local environment, using the available resources more efficiently.
Is this the future of housing construction for nations plagued by the severe shortage of quality, sustainable and economical housing for its vast populations? India, for example, may not be the first adopters of newer construction technologies, but the industry has come a long way in its design and delivery of homes. National developers, especially, are beginning to incorporate these newer technologies – not just limited to smart features in homes, but also in manufacturing techniques like prefab and 3D prefab today and perhaps 3D printing within the next decade. While the successful integration of technology would likely ultimately bring down costs for consumers – not just in the design and build phase, but also in operating and maintaining spaces through smart home technology. Notwithstanding the significant environmental and cost benefits, these techniques will likely have a significant impact on a country where mass housing is the need of the hour.
There are other benefits too. 3D printing requires less material for making structural components, as compared to concrete-forming techniques. And whereas curved concrete structures that are poured into forms are solid, those made using 3D printing can be hollow, if needed. It can also create useful gradients, such as reducing wall thickness from the bottom of a wall toward the top. 3D printing also promises reduced spends and faster delivery than traditional manufacturing units. What’s remarkable is that a 3D-printing robot can produce a building that’s completely in tune with its environmental factors such as soil moisture, temperature, wind direction and radiation levels.
As with any promising technology in its early stages, 3D printing faces its own unique set of challenges. For one, a lot of research projects that involve digital construction often don’t work on an architectural scale. And if they do, they usually either use a process that cannot be easily integrated into a construction site, or materials and process that cannot be easily code-certified. Also, quality control represents a major challenge; to be viable, any printed building technique will need systems that constantly monitor and inspect the materials as they are being produced. These are critical areas, which must be addressed for 3D printing to harbour any hopes of breaking into very slow and very conservative construction industry.
At present, it may be far-stretched to seriously believe that 3D printing could ever completely replace traditional construction techniques or relegate construction firms to irrelevance. But there is no doubt that, we will see some fascinating experiments and developments along the way. So, regardless of what direction 3D printing takes, the roleplay of automation in the future of the construction industry will make for an interesting story – the kind that deserves front-row viewing.