New advances in the construction industry–like ERP systems geared specifically to construction and the mega-construction projects mentioned in an earlier blog—are invigorating an industry where little has changed in the last 100 years. And more change is on the way—in the form of 3D printing.
What is 3D Printing?
3D Printing, also known as additive manufacturing (AM), is the process of building an object by joining materials layer upon layer from 3D model data. The process began as a way to rapidly create prototypes and is now used to produce finished products.
Traditional 3D printing methods range from stereolithography that uses liquid plastic to selective laser sintering that uses a laser to fuse together fine powder from a variety of materials including nylon, ceramics, glass or metal powders like aluminum, steel or silver.
Until recently, AM has primarily been used to create prototypes, but 3D print manufacturing is already a reality in the making of artificial hip joints and other areas of medicine and aviation. AM reached sales of $3 billion in 2013 and is estimated to top $10 billion by 2020. The automotive, medical, and aerospace industries currently make up the largest revenue sectors.
Printing in Construction
The appeal of 3D printing for construction is its promise to improve quality, reduce costs, and increase flexibility. The challenge for AM manufacturing has been one of size and the need for machines capable of printing at large scale.
Loughborough University in the UK is developing large-scale additive processes for the manufacture of building components. They have already developed 3DCP, an additive manufacturing process capable of producing full-scale construction and architectural components. Current work focuses on novel reinforcement techniques, material science and the development of robotics for material placement.
Closer to home, Chattanooga-based Branch Technology is working on a different approach they call Cellular Fabrication™ (C-Fab™). Using optimized geometries to create complex cellular constructs, they create forms that are then filled with economical construction materials.
C-Fab uses a patented freeform 3D printing process in open space that is not constrained to the layer-by-layer process of traditional 3D printing. Platt Boyd, founder, and CEO of Branch Technology describes their technique as a way to build like nature, eliminating the waste of traditional construction and allowing architects to design structures in shapes that are too costly to achieve using traditional construction techniques.
3D Printing’s $10,000 Challenge
While they are currently focused on creating unique interior spaces, art installations, and exhibit spaces, Branch Technology is developing load-bearing and exterior walls. They’ve even created a competition for building a complete 3D printed house. The winning designer will receive $10,000 and get to see Branch transform their dream into reality. You can get more information on the competition on their website.
3D printing may not be ready to go commercial yet, but the technology is developing to make it possible. From greater design flexibility for architects to lower materials and labor costs for contractors, 3D printing seems destined to change the future of construction.