How Can 3D Printing Alleviate the Construction Industry’s Social, Climate, and Environmental Challenges?
Global housing shortages, a lack of skilled workers, and the need to reach carbon neutrality by 2050—the construction industry faces a tripled-edged sword. Industry leaders must use their experience to provide sustainable solutions while acting fast to keep up with a growing population. Nevertheless, expertise and speed are difficult to deliver without a full team.
In an age where industry leaders fight carbon-heavy traditional construction methods with urbanization, one new technology shines a light on the situation: 3D construction printing.
In 2021, the 3D printing market was valued at 13.84 billion USD and predicted growth at a CAGR of 20.8% from 2022 to 2030. The 3D printing hardware segment currently leads the market. It accounts for more than 60% of global revenue through its compatibility in supporting affordable housing, rapid industrialization, developing civil infrastructure, safer urbanization, and optimize labor costs.
And because 3D printing permits fast prototyping and advanced manufacturing practices, the global housing industry could see significant benefits from this latest construction technology. 3D printing limits waste and reduces the harmful effects of greenhouse gasses on the environment without compromising workers’ time and safety. Let’s see how 3D printing looks in practice.
Less Waste, More Homes
Statistics on homelessness around the world are steadily increasing due to reasons like inflation and a lack of affordable housing. In fact, in Colombia alone, there are almost 5 million homeless people on average a day. There isn’t nearly enough permanent, affordable housing, and the price tag on new builds is getting bigger and bigger.
That’s why there is no room to waste resources. 3D printing only uses the exact amount of material needed to bring a design to life. Compared to other subtractive production techniques like milling or laser cutting, 3D printing’s additive nature builds components layer by layer, producing less waste material. Reduced waste addresses issues related to natural resource scarcity by providing less materials to more people.
3D printing’s additive manufacturing process is able to create more complex shapes, build objects faster, and reduce labor costs. It also makes it possible to construct homes in hard-to-reach, disadvantaged areas. Already, Japan has built emergency housing models in a total of 23 hours and 12 minutes to get the final result.
3D printing is proven in its ability to construct single-family homes more quickly and affordably than conventional techniques. In the US today, the average cost to build a home is around $282,000 USD. Producing the same design with 3D-printed concrete could reduce costs by 20–40%. Creating green high-rise multi-family structures is the next challenge for the new technology.
Reduce Carbon Footprint With Increased Spatial Access
On top of social housing issues and building quickly, construction leaders must also consider their impact on the climate. Unassisted, 3D printing doesn’t eliminate carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, but with smarter urban planning, the use of alternative materials, and waste reduction the potential of this technology to reduce carbon emissions is significant.
In a recent project in Oman, the largest 3D-printed concrete building in the world was constructed, with more than 99.5% of materials coming from local sources. Not only does this result in a substantial decrease in CO2 emissions, but it also means sizable cost savings. The total cost of materials for the 3D printing of the walls of the 190 m2 house was €1600, which is just 8% of the cost using traditional materials and methods.
Building in remote areas has traditionally required a large number of machinery and resources to be transported from cities to rural locations, resulting in high quantities of greenhouse gas emissions before the construction has even begun. Since 3D printing systems are portable, this technology is suitable for off-site, prefab production, and in-situ application, removing the need for frequent relocation.
3D printing in offsite locations helps when building on the periphery of a city. Minimizing the distance construction teams need to travel reduces the CO2 produced. And building nearer to the inner city means shorter commutes and lowers petrol emissions for future residents too. For many areas where the terrain is difficult, these locations might not be accessible without the support of more nimble 3D printing solutions.
Furthermore, there are different studies and projects in progress that seek to combine waste, such as repurposed plastic, with 3D printing materials in order to encourage and accelerate the circular economy. Intelligent design and advanced 3D printing technology are opening the door for cities to be built in challenging landscapes while lowering their carbon footprints and reducing costs to increase the amount of affordable housing available for those who need it.
Protect Workers and the Environment
Looking after our land will keep the planet living longer—but that’s only if we look after our people too.
In 2020, construction showed roughly ten people out of every 100,000 had fatal work injuries—the third highest rate by industry sector. While 3D printing technology minimizes waste and errors that support climate change efforts, it also has the potential to improve working conditions. The printing systems’ mechanical brain means designers can produce exact replicas of digital models with automated processes that require little manual input or supervision, reducing worker injuries and labor costs.
The intricate designs made possible with the latest printing technologies have also led construction teams to experiment with organic, sustainable, and renewable materials, such as raw earth homes and bamboo composite structures. Bamboo sequesters about 35% more CO2 per hectare than more commonly used trees and is a natural organic product that requires no fertilizer or pesticides. While raw earth is carbon-neutral, it requires digital fabrication to maximize the standard yield of the clay material.
Although the durability of raw earth is controversial, solutions are also entering the market that enable printing with real concrete, using 99% locally available materials. Power2build saw cost-savings of up to 90% compared to printing with mortars—helping to reach its goals to reduce the housing shortage in Angola.
Design upgrades extend beyond the materials used: 3D printing can create customized infrastructure to be as efficient as possible. With more flexibility in structural design, architects can draw up smart plans to combine sustainable materials seamlessly, retain heat, reduce energy consumption, and create layouts so that disabled people can live comfortably. Just think—airtight walls, increased energy efficiency, and reduced lifecycle costs. The technology’s ability to create curved shapes without an issue means designers can also consider and avoid obstructing their building environment.
3D printing, empowered with intelligent design and a layered manufacturing approach, can reduce material use to build more with less, and there is no performance trade-off. Where tight urban spaces and complex environments have traditionally limited the availability of secure and stable infrastructures, 3D printing is leading the way. It supports construction companies in designing greener buildings without compromising worker safety and site conditions. 3D printing’s power to increase flexibility in structural design and expand the types of usable building materials is pushing the boundaries of sustainable architecture and construction today.
About the Author
Ibon Iribar, Investment & Open Innovation Advisor at CEMEX Ventures, deeply explores and analyses advanced technologies for the construction industry and helps identify investment and business development opportunities with new startups, projects, and entities of the construction technology ecosystem across multiple markets. Ibon leads the efforts for the biggest challenge for construction startups, Construction Startup Competition, and works year-round seeking the most innovative and promising solutions to invest in or collaborate with, supporting startups´ development and their growth within the built environment.
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