CEMEX (NYSE: CX) is the latest in a long list of construction behemoths entering the additive construction (AC) space. Alongside GE Renewable and PERI Group, the Mexican cement giant has invested in COBOD. This gives the Danish concrete 3D printer manufacturer a significant boost in a sector that is becoming increasingly crowded with experts and pretenders alike.
We spoke to Ibon Iribar, Investment & Open Innovation Advisor at CEMEX Ventures, about his view of the AC segment and the company’s recent investment in COBOD. Iribar has been analyzing AC for nearly six years, screening early-stage startups to partner with or invest in. This process began with a broad study of the construction supply chain, identifying challenges and then the technologies that could address them.
“In that sense, one of the verticals that we deeply analyzed almost since the very beginning was 3D printing,” Iribar said. “I personally met and talked to almost every player in terms of early-stage companies in this space. We scouted depending on the development level of each company and each technology, prioritizing some over others. In the end, we had some winning bets.”
The Winning Bet
CEMEX is a Mexican multinational building materials company with $13 billion in revenue and over 41,000 employees. When its venture capital arm began studying the market about six years ago, Iribar screened just eight to 10 startups. Now, that number has increased to almost 50 companies. More importantly, where once these firms were 3D printing demonstration walls or individual homes, they are now constructing complete buildings with appliances, doors, electrical and plumbing—in some cases for entire small neighborhoods.
“The advancements in the ecosystem are increasing year by year,” Iribar said. “The ecosystem is entering more of material phrase of technological development. This means that for example, initially there were machines available that were able to offer printing itself. Now, we are seeing that now there are more companies offering not only the printing itself, but robotic applications. For example, they can improve the finishing of the walls, perform installations, the painting, and so on. We are seeing a transition not only in the type of projects that are being printed, but also in the functionality of the technology.”
As a result of its analysis, CEMEX Ventures came to some interesting conclusions. First, Iribar and his team categorized companies depending on the technology they used, generally whether they relied on gantry systems or robotic arms. Then, they determined the advantages and disadvantages of each, as well as if the startups were producing objects for aesthetic or structural applications, end products or prototypes. Ultimately, gantry machines seemed as though they could be most easily industrialized.
Given the extent to which CEMEX studied the segment, it’s significant that the first construction 3D printing company it decided to back was COBOD. Iribar noted that this firm was in part selected because COBOD was focused on being an original equipment manufacturer, rather than performing the actual construction. Additionally, it was one of the few companies 3D printing with concrete, rather than mortar-based products. However, COBOD lacked the material science expertise to push its concrete further, offering an opportunity for CEMEX to assist.
The majority of AC is performed with ready-to-mix dry mix mortars, which are five to 10 times the price of standard, ready-mix concrete. Together, CEMEX and COBOD sought a better system that could cut construction costs significantly.
The work between the two companies began with the development of a new 3D printing additive called D.Fab. This admixture consists of specialty chemicals incorporated at the batching plant that makes the concrete more fluid and pumpable. Another admixture that speeds up the curing process is added in the dosing unit at the printhead, along with the concrete to gain shape.
Altogether, D.Fab really only represents just one percent of the total building material. However, when combined with local sand, gravel, and cement, this admixture drops the cost of AC materials by 90 percent. D.Fab was first used to 3D print a 53 m2 (570 sf) house in Luanda, the capital city of Angola, by AC firm Power2Build. Using the material, the home cost less than €1,000 in concrete materials. This was followed by a 190 m2 (2,100 SF) home in Muscat, the capital of Oman, which relied on 99 percent locally sourced materials, aside from the D.Fab additives from Europe. The cost of the materials were cut to under €1,600. The same building with typical dry-mix mortar would have cost over €20,000, according to COBOD.
D.Fab is just the first in material development between the two companies. They will continue to improve D.Fab, while also offering more sustainable mixes. CEMEX will aid the startup in delivering materials with locally available materials, as well as recycled materials, like waste concrete, wood, and glass.
D.Fab could be a game changer for the AC sector, not only because it enables the use of concrete for 3D printing but because it lowers the cost so dramatically. This, in turn, could allow construction 3D printing to develop into a fully-fledged industry and realize many of its purported goals, such as affordable housing.
Though the technology is being marketed as a “solution” to the housing crisis, Iribar explained that it may not yet make sense economically to be “the” solution. That may change in the future, as the sector develops. Instead, it is the speed with which a gantry can be deployed that makes the big difference at the moment. This means that it could be used to rapidly 3D print emergency housing in response to a natural disaster or a military structure for an evolving battle.
“Using traditional methods, you need to very quickly coordinate different segments—someone from the material side, general contractor or the, the player who is in charge of the construction itself. That is sometimes quite difficult, for example, in countries or regions that are not easily accessible. So, putting a single machine in place can solve different tasks at the same time,” Iribar said.
For it to really address the housing shortage, Iribar suggests that the entire ecosystem needs to grow and increase the economics of AC in general.
Beyond House 3D Printing
For the time being, CEMEX is targeting the 3D printing of buildings due to the fact that it is more well-developed application. However, as COBOD has demonstrated through its work with GE Renewable Energy, there are use cases beyond 3D printed homes, apartment complexes, and offices. GE has seen that 3D printing foundations could potentially make it possible to support much larger wind turbines, thus generating more electricity.
Other applications might include 3D printed stairs, tailored to specific landscapes, or facades. The 3D printing of earthen materials, like mud and clay, has proven to be difficult, as local soil differs from place to place. Therefore, an obstacle to widespread use of WASP’s clay printing technology is the variation in feedstock even when it’s all sourced from the same spot.
If CEMEX is able to develop an additive to make concrete pumpable when mixed with local sand and aggregates, perhaps it could create an admixture that makes soil and clay more printable, as well. This extends further to the far-out visions of NASA to 3D print habitats on the moon. Maybe all it takes to 3D print moon dust is the right formulation of D.Fab.
So, as it establishes itself in the AC sector by 3D printing buildings with COBOD, CEMEX will expand into other use cases. It won’t be the only one, of course, but Iribar sees competition in the space as a good thing.
“We see [competition] as an opportunity because it means that the market is focusing on new technologies, new opportunities, and, at the end of the day, new revenue sources. So, for us, competition is a way of generating confidence in the whole 3D printing ecosystem. Just one player cannot develop or push the deployment of a single technology. It needs the support of different players,” Iribar said.
As the growth of this ecosystem occurs, Iribar believes that AC will become increasingly integral to the global construction industry. It won’t replace traditional methods, of course, but, as with 3D printing in general, it will become a vital tool in the toolbox.
“The truth is that, from our perspective, we don’t see 3D printing technology as becoming the primary construction method in the next 20, 30, or 50 years. However, we truly believe that it’s going to become an important part—maybe five to 10 percent—of the whole construction industry. Because we have seen so far that there are some regions and countries that are pushing the technology and requiring its use by law. In that sense, we think that the industry is entering a new chapter,” Iribar concluded.
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