The construction industry, a key pillar of the global economy, continues to evolve as it seeks more efficient and sustainable solutions to meet the demands of a rapidly growing world. Amidst the pursuit of innovation, 3D printing emerges as a game-changer, offering a promising pathway to address various challenges and open new possibilities.
The construction industry is the world’s largest sector, representing 13 percent of global GDP, equivalent to approximately $12 trillion. It affects most aspects of our lives, from the infrastructure we use daily, the buildings where we reside and work, to energy generation, you name it – the backbone of it all is the construction sector and the massive skilled workforce driving it.
However, the industry today faces several major challenges. First, the construction sector ranks among the least automated industries. Over the past two decades, its productivity growth has trailed behind the broader economy, achieving only a third of the average rate. This contributes to construction costs outpacing inflation and salaries, exacerbating the worldwide affordable housing crisis – the United States alone grapples with a shortage of four million homes. Second, there is a shortage of skilled labor within the industry, with a significant number of young individuals showing little interest in joining its ranks. In the United States, nearly one in four workers in this sector is over 55 years old and the deficit of construction workers exceeds half a million. This further compounds the supply-side challenges in construction. Third, the construction sector is a substantial contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for nearly 40 percent, and it generates nearly a third of global waste, in part due to its sheer size. Fourth, construction practices have evolved slowly over the decades, often leading to simple, uninspiring, and repetitive architectural designs. Take a stroll through many suburban areas of the United States, and you will find identical house designs that are repeated extensively. This pattern is mirrored worldwide, with most buildings adhering to simplistic rectangular shapes, while more elaborate designs are typically reserved for high-end developments accompanied by high price tags.
To address these challenges, 3D printing has emerged as a promising solution. This technology, with decades of application in various industries such as metalwork, dentistry, and defense, is now making significant strides in construction. Using additive manufacturing, this cutting-edge technology creates large-scale structures by transforming digital blueprints into physical structures using specialized 3D printers equipped with concrete extrusion systems that deposit concrete layer by layer, gradually forming the desired buildings or structures. In recent years, 3D printing technology by COBOD International has been used to create a wide array of structures, including 3D printed houses up to three stories (30 ft), schools, office complexes, sports clubs, data centers, wind turbines bases, equestrian facilities, and more, underlining its versatility and potential within the construction domain.
The promise of 3D printing lies in its potential advantages over conventional construction methods. It automates construction, reducing costs with a minimal workforce down to just three individuals, addressing current labor shortages while enhancing precision, quality, and safety. It accelerates project completion and financial returns, exemplified by the feat of Holcim, the world’s largest cement and concrete manufacturer, who in 2021 in Kenya 3D printed ten homes in just ten weeks using a single 3D printer. It promotes sustainability at construction sites by minimizing material waste since it only prints what is necessary without the need for cutting or carving materials, such as pre-cast concrete elements, reducing environmental impact. Moreover, it enables the creation of designs that maximize material efficiency. For instance, when constructing the walls of a house, a circular design would use less material compared to a square building with the same square footage. Finally, it broadens the architect’s creative possibilities. The 3D printer does not add extra costs or time constraints, whether it is used for constructing conventional rectangular buildings or spectacular organic shapes that harmonize with the surroundings. The design flexibility also paves the way for fresh solutions that were previously too costly, as seen in General Electric’s use of 3D printing to build taller wind turbine pedestals, leading to increased energy output.
However, for the full potential of construction 3D printing to be realized and truly transform the world’s largest industry, we face several challenges that need to be addressed. This includes investing in the skills and knowledge of today’s construction workforce, encouraging architects to think differently, and building strong partnerships with other contractors who will play a crucial role alongside this new equipment. Additionally, the development and acceptance of new building codes and standards by regulators and structural engineers will be essential. As the industry takes on these challenges and more, it is anticipated that the promised technological benefits will only grow, driven by increasing adoption and ongoing advancements in the field.
Looking ahead, construction 3D printing is expected to follow a trajectory like other disruptive technologies (e.g. the mobile phone), with larger and more reliable printers, increasingly ambitious projects, expanded applications, and the development of complementary tools that extend beyond the construction of structural shells. I firmly believe that this path will lead the construction sector toward a bright and innovative future.
Philip Lund-Nielsen is Co-founder & Head of Americas, COBOD International Miami, Florida. COBOD is the world’s largest supplier of 3D printers for the construction industry with 70+ printers deployed on all habitable continents. COBOD’s mission is to build smarter through multifunctional construction robots to make construction faster, cheaper, more sustainable, and with added design freedom. Its 3D printers are used to create one-, two-, and 3-story buildings incl. residential, commercial and office space, public buildings, schools, sports clubs, equestrian facilities, etc. In addition, its technology has been used to 3D print large-scale data centers, wind turbine towers, and more.