When news comes out that Dubai wants to 3D print 25 percent of its new buildings by 2025, it’s hard to know quite what to make of it. The first question that comes to mind might be “but…why?” That might be followed by “really?” and, then, if you move past that, you might get to, “okay, how?”
The first two questions are still up in the air, but the third one has received an inkling of an answer through the latest demonstration by additive construction firm Apis Corp. The Russian company recently reported that it had built an office building in Dubai that Apis Cor claims is the largest 3D-printed building in the world. The firm makes reference “hitting the ‘Guinness Book of records’” for the project in a press release sent to 3DPrint.com. However, an official from Guinness World Records has told us that, “After researching within our database, I cannot confirm that Apis Cor had or has ever held a Guinness World Records title.” She has instructed us to send her any information that proves otherwise so that the Records Management Team can review so we’ll update you should that change.
In the past, Apis Cor was misleading in describing its first structure as being printed in 24 hours, when it was actually printed over the course of four months. In the case of this building, Apis Cor did describe explicitly how long the printer ran to produce the building, but whether or not it is the “world’s largest” has yet to be determined by any official source. With that in mind, it’s important to approach the story with some caution.
Regardless of whether or not the structure is actually the largest, the building is impressive and, based on video footage, looks as though the walls of at least the first floor really were 3D printed on-site (we’ll get into the second floor later on). Printed using Apis Cor’s portable additive construction system for the Dubai Municipality, the two-story edifice stands at 9.5 meters (31 feet) tall with a floor area of 640 square meters (6,900 square feet).
Other additive construction firms, like WinSun, can be light on the specifics of their projects, but, in this case, Apis Cor has gone into detail about which portions were printed and how. Prefab 3D-printed concrete slabs were used to lay the foundation before the system 3D printed the walls, at which point windows, ceiling and roofs were installed via traditional methods.
Because Apis Cor’s prototype printer was previously only capable of 3D printing wall heights of up to three meters, the height of the boom had to be increased, which unfortunately reduced the stiffness of the printer itself. To address this issue, the firm’s lead mechanical engineer, Nikita Zherebstova, tells us that a hydraulic system was developed to lift the printer into the air. The entire schedule for the project was limited to just two months, meaning that the Apis Cor team had to create this setup on the construction site.
Due to the intense heat of the Dubai desert, which reached 50 °C (122 °F) when the crew arrived in June 2019, most construction was performed at night. Additionally, Apis Cor determined that it would need to develop a printing medium that would take into account the climate of the UAE, settling on a gypsum mixture derived from local building materials. The constantly fluctuating temperature of the climate led to the build up of dew on the printing equipment, resulting in the rusting of metal components. To deal with this problem, Apis Cor used a specific lubricant on its guides and bearings, but has determined to use stainless steel in future versions of its printer.
There was a good deal of manual intervention during the printing process, specifically to bypass obstacles and install non-printed components. The company hopes to create a machine vision system that can allow the printer to avoid obstacles. Apis Cor performed compliance testing before printing the walls and routinely checked the equipment before each round of fabrication.
Total printing time, according to the company, was about 500 hours, eight hours per day, with the crew taking breaks that could last as long as several days to weeks as the general contractor integrated fittings, electronics and the ceilings. Once ceilings were installed on the first floor, the printer was brought onto the second floor and began printing once more. What you’ll notice from video footage is that there is a jump from when the printer begins printing the second floor to the project’s completion, which may raise some doubts about whether or not the system was used for the second floor. We can also only see the printing being performed from one angle, so some healthy skepticism might be important to maintain.
According to Apis Cor, this building will be the first in an entire region consisting of 3D-printed structures. Printing was completed in August and the total project was finished in October. Unlike other large, 3D-printed buildings, like those made by WinSun, this structure was not made using pre-printed walls that were shipped and assembled on-site.
The Russian firm envisions additional automation technologies that will reduce human intervention even further, allowing the printer to produce the ceilings, roofs and install electrical components, doors and windows automatically. The Apis Cor team also believes that multi-floor construction is technically feasible and that a regulatory framework for additive construction is what stands in the way of its deployment.
The new office building is a far leap from Apis Cor’s first 3D-printed building, a tiny house fabricated in Moscow as a demonstration concept. The Russian company is unique in the design of its system, which is a single arm that rotates around a platform, as opposed to the standard gantry-style system of other concrete printers. It’s possible that such an architecture is easier to transport, as Apis Cor suggests.
I was being a bit glib when I said that we weren’t sure why Dubai would want to 3D print 25 percent of its new buildings by 2025. There are good reasons for 3D printing buildings, particularly a reduction in labor and, therefore, reduction in cost. This is important for a country like the United Arab Emirates, where 90 percent of the workforce is made up of migrants mainly from India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. In a population of 9.2 million, 7.8 million are guest workers.
Despite recent improvements in its labor laws, the country’s visa-sponsorship program links migrant workers to their employers. This means that workers can be fined, imprisoned or deported if they don’t show up for seven days in a row without a proper excuse, according to Human Rights Watch. Construction workers are just one group that has historically faced hardships in the country. One NPR report described foreign construction workers as living “eight and ten to a room in labor camps”, saying that “many are trapped in a cycle of poverty and debt, which amounts to little more than indentured servitude.
As is the case with automation in any industry, the use of machines to reduce labor costs can also be used to neglect the demands of labor. For this reason, it might make a good deal of bureaucratic sense for a city like Dubai to 3D print a quarter of its buildings.
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