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Construction Corner: 3D printing takes shape in construction

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by Korky Koroluk

Not many people even raise an eyebrow at the mention of 3D printing a house or an apartment. After all, people in the construction industry know these things have been done, and that other, more ambitious projects are under way.
Construction Corner: 3D printing takes shape in construction

We've been told that 3D printing could be a transformative technology. But we've all heard that about other technologies that will "change forever the way we do business." We've heard that line so often that most of us have become skeptics.

We've read about 3D printing in China, where a modest apartment has been built using 3D printed wall panels, then trucked to the building site for installation. That's not such a big deal when you think about it. It's just another way of precasting.

Now, though, two projects promise to bring 3D printing in the construction industry closer to reality.

One, in Dubai, involves an outfit called the United Arab Emirates National Innovation Committee, which wants to transform the Emirates into the technological centre of the world of architecture and design. As a first step, it plans to 3D print an entire office building, in co-operation with WinSun Global, the Chinese company that has been using 3D printed panels.

But this project, at a busy intersection right in the heart of Dubai, will be printed entirely on site. And it will also use 3D printing for various structural and decorative components. It will use a specially reinforced concrete, mostly, as well as fibre reinforced plastic and glass fibre reinforced gypsum.

It's going to be a small building, just 200 square metres. A six-metre-tall 3D printer will be assembled on the site and it will handle most of the construction.

It's expected that total construction time will be just a few weeks. Labour costs are expected to be between 50 and 80 per cent lower than conventional building and construction waste will be reduced by between 30 and 60 per cent.

The project is intended to make a statement.

Al Gergawi, chairman of the innovation committee said the building "will be a testimony to the efficiency and creativity of 3D printing technology." He said the building is "the first step of many more to come."

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, a design studio called MX3D, has said it will build a pedestrian bridge over a canal in downtown Amsterdam, using robotic 3D printing using molten steel.

This project is a step beyond other 3D printing technologies.

Tim Geurtjens, the chief technical officer with MX3D, says that what distinguishes it from other methods "is that we work according to the 'printing outside the box' principle."

"By printing with six-axis industrial robots, we are no longer limited to a square box in which everything happens. Printing a functional, life-size bridge is... the ideal way to showcase the endless possibilities of this technique."

MX3D had already developed a 3D printer mounted on an industrial robot. That printer extruded resins as its "ink."

To build the bridge, though, they again used industrial robots combined with a welding machine. Then they developed software to drive the combination. The system can print small and large parts of infinite shapes, laying down beads of molten steel instead of the concrete that the Chinese have used. The MX3D robots can print with several molten metals, including steel, stainless steel, aluminum, copper and bronze without the need for supporting structures. By extruding just small amounts of molten metal at a time, they are able to "print" lines in mid-air.

Autodesk, the maker of computer-aided design software, has collaborated with MX3D from the outset. Maurice Conti, Autodesk's director of strategic innovation, said in a statement that "the MX3D platform is a potential game-changer."

Certainly, the innovation involved in the bridge project could be what demonstrates that 3D printing is coming of age as a transformative technology.

Korky Koroluk is a regular freelance contributor to the Journal of Commerce. Send comments or questions to editor@journalofcommerce.com.

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