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3D Printing and its effect on the Construction Industry

In the last few years, additive manufacturing, or 3D printing as it is commonly known, has ascended in the construction industry’s consciousness. Inspiring pictures of liquid, organic, euphoric, sustainable structures, 3D printing provokes us to imagine new ideal models for both design and building.

Projects: How 3D printing is changing development  

While some bigger construction companies have divisions or associations to investigate the innovation, it despite everything, stays on the fringes of the development business.

The sceptics will claim this is because 3D printing is a red herring; a non-starter in an industry that has no need of its whimsical complexities and no time for its demanding complexities. However, the more persuasive argument is that the inability of the industry to clearly identify its potential value is more a failure of the industry than the technology itself.

So far 3D printing has provided clients with Instagrammable pet-projects which, whilst perhaps fulfilling a need for technological field trials, do very little to demonstrate its potential for disruption of the industry. Such demonstration projects often attempt to simply swap out traditional construction elements (either permanent works or formwork) with 3D printing and usually do so through a one-off competitive tender process which typically fails to provide a suitable environment for innovation.

Whilst it is refreshing to see that the 3D printing specialists themselves are controversially calling each other out as encouraging ‘fake news’ on the performance, benefits and limitations of the technology, it remains unclear where the industry will get the data it needs to take important decisions without proper industry-sponsored research that looks transparently at the issues of cost at a meaningful scale.

Meanwhile, other forms of industrialised construction, with more tried and tested materials and technology, are leveraging digital tools and innovative business models to drive significant progress.

While 3D printing offers a different set of opportunities, and has unique challenges, the reality is that it will have to vie for its place in the contractor’s toolkit alongside other emerging forms of Modern Methods of Construction (MMC). And just as those other alternative methods of construction have historically struggled to demonstrate value in a fractured and compartmentalised industry, so 3D printing will also have to face up to the challenge.

More fundamentally, it must first take the leap from proof-of-concept to a viable construction alternative, and to do so it will need to demonstrate that it works in practice and can add value in a real-world construction environment.

And this is the crux of the challenge for both 3D printing and the industry. It will require investment, collaboration, an integrated approach and a long-term commitment to overcome the array of technological, material, design, health and safety, logistical and operational hurdles that exist in implementing it on an industrial scale.

This will require a different mindset and a degree of enterprise that the industry is still unfamiliar with; a fundamental gap that we must all strive to close. Let us welcome 3D printing with open arms, as an in-progress case study on innovation and as a much-needed catalyst for change.