3D printing, 3DP for short, is a production technique whose use is expanding to include many industries. Its benefits are enticing: design freedom, waste reduction, high functionality, and lower labor input are just a few.
According to newly published data, the value of the 3DP industry has reached $20 billion in 2020. With distinct advantages as well as affordability, it was only a matter of time before it started working its way into construction as well.
Just recently, a company has managed to build a pedestrian bridge using only 3DP. It was a daring and astonishing feat, and it was a huge success. 3DP made the construction process quicker, more practical, and, most importantly, more affordable. One would think that adopting this technique in general, especially after such a success, would go easily and quickly. But that was not the case.
There are certain inherent challenges in construction that are hard to overcome to adopt 3D Printing, some of these will be discussed below.
The biggest challenges for 3D printing in construction
1. 3D printing is not suitable for large-scale projects
The medical, aerospace, or automobile industries are a good place for 3DP because these industries require producing multiple identical items. 3DP is great for that. But construction requires something a bit different.
3DP can be useful in constructing houses, villas, and pedestrian bridges. It is good for smaller repairs and for tasks that are too difficult or dangerous for humans. Also, it is used for building shelters, bunkers, or other items that need to be finished quickly.
But anything bigger and more complex than that poses a challenge. The challenge stems from the limited capacity of 3D printers, the complexity of the process, and insufficient printing materials. Thus, high buildings, bridges, or any other similar constructions are still quite hard to make using 3DP.
2. High cost
3DP is a much more affordable choice in smaller, mass-production industries. The cost of materials, energy, and labor are reduced by a huge percent. But, the same cannot be said for construction.
The amount of energy required to use 3D printers in large-scale projects is much higher than in traditional construction. Studies show that 3D printers can use up 50 to 100 times more electrical energy in construction than machines. Of course, the cost of energy is, thus, multiplied as well.
Additionally, the materials used in 3DP are different from those used in traditional construction techniques. Such materials are usually different types of plastics and special metals which are harder to come by. Therefore, they are much more costly, as is the production process itself.
The equipment companies need to be able to use 3DP in construction is also rather pricey. Traditional machines cost much less, which makes them the go-to choice of many companies.
3. Negative impact on the environment
Widespread 3DP in construction would require, as we mentioned above, the excessive use of plastic and energy. Such practices would, in turn, have a negative effect on the environment.
In a world where the movement against the use of plastic is at its peak, 3DP in construction does not seem plausible. The plastic residue left by big 3D printers would be far too much for companies to handle. Also, we would not be able to recycle much of said waste. That means it would just be left to degrade on its own in a landfill somewhere. Since plastic can take centuries to fully disappear, the effects on our planet would be huge.
Furthermore, the excessive use of electrical energy is another problem. The amount of water needed to produce so much electricity is both costly and wasteful. Additionally, if the energy comes from burning fossil fuels, the greenhouse gas emissions are also higher than they would be with other techniques.
Considering the strict policies on fighting climate change in many countries, it is no surprise that 3DP is still not widespread in construction.
4. There is a labor gap
Not everyone knows how to operate 3D printers, especially in large-scale projects. Since the technology itself is fairly new, educating users is still underway. If construction companies want to use 3DP, they need to train their employees. That requires time and money, both of which are nowadays hard to give.
Certain universities, namely the MIT, are heavily training their students to use 3DP. But it will still be a few years until this new generation of engineers is ready to take on projects and educate others. Until then, it seems like employee training requires time and funds companies would rather spend somewhere else.
Are 3D printers reliable?
There are still some questions on whether 3DP constructions are as safe as traditional ones. These questions arise from the fact that, in 3DP, we rely much more on machines than on human labor. Printers perform many tasks more efficiently than humans, but they are also prone to making more errors. In construction, these errors could be quite dangerous.
As you have read, 3DP is becoming a popular trend in many industries. However, there is still a long way to go until it can become widespread in construction. Despite all the challenges 3DP is facing, its future remains bright. We cannot expect the construction industry to move to 3DP fully, even in the decades to come. But with innovations that the 3DP industry is constantly introducing, it will become a more viable and useful resource in construction soon.
About the author
David Spergel is a 3D Applications Specialist at Microsol Resources. He is responsible for providing installation, training, service, and support for our client’s 3D Systems Professional 3D printers, including the CJP, MJP, and ProJet lines of professional printers.
Prior to joining Microsol Resources, David worked as a Production Manager at Doob3D where he trained and managed the production team. David holds a Bachelor of Science in Manufacturing Engineering from Boston University.