Concrete Dreams: Construction 3D Printing for the Developing World


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A good deal of 3D printing for construction currently focuses on the developed world. 3D printed neighborhoods in Texas and the Netherlands are underway. Companies are looking at 3D printed formwork, bridges and customized houses. I’m not as excited about 3D printed homes right now. For me, there are other areas where 3D printing can make more of an impact.

In a previous article in this series, we looked at the types of pre-cast elements that could be mass customized and 3D printed locally or near sites. In another, we examined more broadly the opportunity for additive construction. To me, small pedestrian bridges, wild animal grates, silos, septic tanks, sea walls, pylons and other elements are much more valuable. You could print them quickly and them quickly. You wouldn’t need stock and could respond to market demand faster with less capital tied up in bits of concrete laying about. Through coupling additive construction with mass customization software, it’s possible the right part to the right people at the right time, while expending less capital and being more profitable. To me, that is a great business case. Weber Beamix St Gobain is essentially doing this already.

Mass Customized 3D Printed Infrastructure Made Locally

A bicycle bridge by Weber.

To me the ultimate genesis for additive construction is in combining mass customization software, regional 3D printing and 3D printing in factories in the developing or austere world will be the next great frontier. Now, there’s already a lot going on in the developing world and in emerging markets.

A lot of the interest seems to stem from the hope that 3D printing will solve the housing crisis. As Editor-in-Chief Michael Molitch-Hou explains in this DeHyper post, that may not be true. We don’t actually have a housing crisis. We have a “we are not paying people enough money to survive crisis.” To hope for a technological solution to a lack of empathy and a wholesale erosion of the social contract globally, is naïve in my opinion.

On Demand, According to Needs

Mass customized 3D printed slope stairs by Weber

I’ve never been in favor of 3D printing hope. I have seen, however, that given enough attention and money, the system of the world can change and stillborn industries can bloom. But, I believe that if we look at the developing world, we can see a lot of opportunities for additive construction.

The lack of stock and comparative lack of infrastructure needed, along with quick construction time coupled and covered factory environments could be the answer for me though. That would let you quickly and locally build many elements to order in one given area. With mass customization software, these would be the right parts that are needed there.

You might just need any old factory hall to do it in. You waltz in with your additive construction set up on the back of a truck, take in your cement mixing solution plus your special binder and set up shop. You source the bulk of your material as locally as possible (CEMEX and COBOD’s D.fab admixture enables this in their case). You’d probably also have to take along solar or generator power, as well, and some kind of way to condition the air or keep temperature and humidity stable. It would require a dozen trucks, plus portacabins for your folks.

With that set up you could go to the furthest reaches of the road network in the poorest areas of many countries. A team of local engineers would have previously travelled around looking for all the sites that could use a cistern, all the villages that could benefit from a rainwater harvesting catchment, all the villages that need septic tanks. They will have mapped and measured all the rivers, ditches, and canals that could benefit from small pedestrian bridges. They will have looked at aging and improvised infrastructure of all kinds to see if it could be replaced.

Local government leaders, civil engineers and the people themselves would have been asked to report if there were specific infrastructure items that would be of most utility in their lives that they would need. Maybe one bridge is particularly dicey, maybe there is one overpass that has led to a lot of accidents, maybe a particular park could really use benches or a particular road could really use barriers. Crucially, we would not be building out the biggest cities or the most wealthy areas. We would also not be building out one area wholesale. We’d put in the singular items that are most needed where they are needed.

This is where 3D printing would shine. Not to plough a new neighborhood somewhere in the US, but rather to build single points of the most-needed infrastructure in developing societies. With mass customization, we can design the exact solution and with 3D printing we can cost effectively produce this component close to where it is needed. Once we’ve done what we can in that area, we move to the next town to repeat the process. To me, this would be the most powerful direct application in 3D printing for construction.

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