Additive Manufacturing Strategies

Saint-Gobain Buys Eindhoven Concrete 3D Printing Factory

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Saint-Gobain Weber Beamix announced that it would purchase the stake held by construction company BAM in the Eindhoven Concrete 3D Printing factory that was previously a joint initiative. This means that Saint-Gobain is now is the sole owner of the factory that has printed several bridges and homes in the Eindhoven area.

A completely indoor site, the factory uses robotic arms to produce parts of homes, formwork, and elements of bridges and other large-scale construction projects. So far, the factory has produced a bicycle bridge, a pedestrian bridge, and the first of a series of homes.

The homes were created by a consortium made up of the Eindhoven University of Technology, construction company Van Wijnen, concrete giant Saint-Gobain Weber Beamix, real estate investor Vesteda, the city of Eindhoven, and engineering firm Witteveen+Bos. Initially, the factory itself was an initiative of large construction company BAM.

BAM is a Dutch construction business with a revenue of over $8 billion a year. Hurt by COVID, the firm is cutting costs and reducing its international exposure. It seems that the company exited the concrete factory through similar cost-cutting concerns. I’m sure that this will be penny-wise and pound-foolish for the firm and can only describe this move as lacking foresight. Saint Gobain, meanwhile, is a $41-billion, 356-year-old concrete business and they’ll be laughing about this for decades.

Saint Gobain says that this is a strategic move that will increase its development and manufacturing activity in 3D printing concrete. The firm also says that this is a sustainable solution that will help industrialize the digitization of construction. Whereas it is grateful to BAM for initiating the industrialization of concrete 3D printing and making it acceptable in the industry, Saint Gobain stresses the independence that this will give them. They also believe that it will accelerate the adoption of concrete 3D printing.

From the point of view of BAM, this is one of the silliest moves I’ve ever seen in business. In order to explain the importance of this, you should note that I’m an additive construction sceptic. Most of the 3D printed building press releases we’ve seen have been as riddled with lies as Peckinpah movies have been riddled with bullets. Most claims made by the “we printed a house in 24 hours” are, simply put, false. Also, as Michael points out here, the claims of 3D printed homes solving the housing crisis are optimistic or overblown. Without fundamental changes in the way homes are designed, the true value of 3D printed homes will not emerge.

[Image: Royal BAM Group]

And even then, there is only so much of a total home that you can 3D print. Most additive construction projects try to 3D print in the open air. This is dangerous, silly, and a sign that they are an army of fools. Temperature and humidity changes, rain, moisture, insects and debris all interfere with the build and can weaken structures, bonds, and walls. 3D printing in a tent may be better, but 3D printing in a factory and transporting segments gives you much more control and means that you can 3D print safer structures.

And this is exactly what the Saint Gobain-BAM combination was doing. Whereas I think the immediate value of 3D printing homes is limited, the value of printing formwork, bridge parts, tunnel elements and the like is considerable. By automating a process that usually tasks a lot of wood and workers to do, you can make components that reduce construction project costs and increase innovation.

You can then combine this with the construction of modular kitchen and bathroom units and ship both these and the concrete pieces to the homes. This means that more of the custom construction work can be automated and made lower cost. In this manner, automated 3D printing for construction can deliver value today for homes, tunnel projects, stadiums, bridges, and more. Again, I don’t believe it makes sense now to print the whole home on location, but it does make sense to print costly components so that they are less expensive and just as functional.

BAM was one of the few companies doing the heavy lifting needed in order to bring 3D printing to construction and now they’ve thrown in the towel. In the scheme of things, this project can not have cost them a lot of money. With over a 1,000 bridges, tunnels and sluices in the Netherlands in need of replacement this decade, they had a unique opportunity. A lot of Dutch infrastructure was made in the 50s and 60s and now needs to be replaced. These bridges and other structures are also very similar in their requirements, spans and costs. This would give BAM a unique opportunity to skip formwork and do it in a more cost effective manner via 3D printing. By bringing more 3D printed components on-site, interruptions to traffic could also be further reduced. They would have then been able to leverage this experience to mostly automate the construction of large standardized bridge components and roll out a more inexpensive manufacturing-based construction process worldwide.

Now, Saint Gobain has this opportunity all to itself and, logically, it will advance in the making of formwork and parts, taking away work done previously by BAM and its competitors. For a short-term cash crunch, BAM has given away a long-term slice of its market. At the same time Saint Gobain now has a tool to pitch itself to innovative cities and provincial authorities to place 3D printed buildings there. Now, Saint Gobain can move towards formwork and components, away from its commodities cement business, and towards more higher-value parts. You might as well slather yourself in buttermilk, flour, breadcrumbs, hot oil and ask politely for the fox to enter the henhouse.

Saint Gobain can additionally tout 3D printing’s environmental benefits and reduced material usage as being a part of a green initiative of the firm. Cement and concrete are some of the biggest CO2-producing industries worldwide. Saint Gobain can deflect this, however, by showcasing its new digital building prowess as a way that it is helping innovate solutions to climate change. They need never make any money off of this for it to make sense for them. All in all, a brilliant long-term move by Saint Gobain and sheer lunacy on the part of BAM.

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