3D printing is one of those technologies that has become increasingly widespread over the past few years. Hobbyists and industrial engineers alike use these desktop devices to create three-dimensional objects out of plastic or resin for rapid prototyping. Yet 3D printing isn’t just for smaller objects anymore. In fact, 3D printing can be scaled up to massive sizes very effectively, which means that these same technologies can be used in the construction industry.
The result is that homes can now be built faster, cheaper, and more sustainably than ever before when you integrate 3D printing technologies into construction and fabrication. In some places, a small home’s foundation and walls can be created in less than 24 hours - and more inexpensively than through traditional construction methods. Here’s how this cutting-edge technology is poised to revolutionize homebuilding in the future.
How Are 3D Printing Technologies Applied to Building Homes?
It seems like a stretch to use technologies used to extrude plastic or resin into smaller shapes in the homebuilding industry, the same core mechanics of how a desktop 3D printer works are adaptable for much larger applications. The process works in the following manner:
● Blueprint creation: just as traditional houses are built according to a blueprint, so are 3D-printed buildings. In this case, the blueprint is created digitally through 3D modeling software, making it easy to customize to the needs of an individual homeowner.
● Sending designs to the printer: the digital version of the blueprint needs to be processed and prepared for the printing step. This includes sending that blueprint electronically to the build platform and preparing it by filling it with the raw materials necessary for the build.
● Material printing: large-scale 3D printers work with robotic arms that run on rails installed around the building site. This robotic arm reads the blueprint and takes the building materials - most commonly a type of concrete - and begins extruding the materials to begin creating the structure, layer after layer, from the bottom to the top.
● Additional construction: right now, 3D printing is relegated to simply building the foundation and the walls of the home. Human labor is still needed to finish projects; once the 3D printer is done, it and its rails are removed. Then, additional home features, like wiring, plumbing, doors, and windows, are then completed by hand.
The Benefits of Using 3D Printing Technology
3D printing in construction is an incredible technological feat, but it’s more than just a parlor trick. There are several benefits that using 3D printing technologies in construction can convey. Here’s what 3D printing offers to the construction industry.
● Faster overall construction: Smaller 3D-printed homes are typically completed in less than 24 hours, though this just takes into account the combined runtime of the robotic arm. Even when taking the time spent assembling the rails for the robot, disassembling when the printing is done, and the finishing touches that need to be done by hand, the process is still often considerably faster than traditional building methods.
● Less expensive: 3D-printed homes are an excellent way to control costs, with the walls and foundation of the average home created in this way only costing around $10,000. The rest of the expenses of building a home, such as electrical, plumbing, and other construction efforts, result in a total cost being around $150,000 on average. While homes built using this method are still relatively expensive, it’s an important first step in reducing the costs of new construction.
● More versatile and sustainable: The plans for 3D-printed homes are easy to modify, offering ways for homeowners to customize their blueprint without having it re-drafted by an architect. Additionally, 3D printing requires shorter supply chains and generates less waste, making such homes more environmentally friendly than those created using traditional construction methods.
Downsides to 3D Printing in Construction
As fantastic as 3D printing is in concept, it’s not the perfect construction solution just yet. This is still very new technology, and while it’s not exactly classified as “primitive”, it’s still in the early stages of its development and most certainly needs some more refining before it’s widespread. As of now, there are only a handful of construction companies that offer 3D printing capabilities, so availability is an issue. If there are no building companies that specialize in this type of building method near you, it may simply be impractical to use it in your own construction project.
Additionally, there are only a few construction materials that are practical when it comes to creating 3D-printed buildings. It’s best used for smaller, shorter buildings - the kinds of materials used for creating high-rise skyscrapers, for example, aren’t capable of being handled by large-scale 3D printers just yet, and it may be some time before new types of 3D printing technologies are developed that can address these limitations. For now, 3D printing in construction is most widely used in developing countries or other places where there’s a need for smaller dwellings capable of being constructed rapidly.
The Last Word on 3D Printing for Construction
3D building for construction purposes is still very much a nascent industry. It shows incredible promise, but right now it’s only usable in certain situations. However, as technological approaches continue to evolve, 3D-printed buildings are only going to get more complex over time. While it’s unlikely that a massive 3D printer on rails will ever put skilled contractors out of a job any time soon, we may soon see a future where 3D printers and traditional construction techniques work together flawlessly to make building construction quicker, safer, and more affordable.