Printing the Future: The Utilisation of 3D Printing in the Construction Sector
Over the last 10 years, we have seen 3D Printing or Additive Manufacturing (AM) technologies come to the forefront of intelligent, cheap and effective design. These machines are revolutionising the way we manufacture products and even the way that we design our infrastructure! With so much potential at the touch of a button, it would seem the possibilities are endless, so what exactly can be achieved with 3D printers?
AM is essentially Computer Aided Manufacture (CAM) for the new generation. As with most CAM systems, they require partnership with a Computer Aided Design (CAD) software in order to work to optimum level. 3D Printing/AM is no exception in this. Designers will create vectors or 3D designs which will then be read by the printer and produced. Needless to say, these digital models have to be perfectly rendered so as to avoid mistakes being printed onto the final product.
Modelling software comes in a variety of forms, with some industrial systems costing thousands of pounds and needing special computers. However, most systems do not require that much power and can even be run on a Mac, PC or even a web browser.
Depending on your manufacturing needs and skill level, there is a product for almost everyone. These include:
- Cura – This kind of software is called a “Slicer” because it renders a 2D image into one a 3D printer can use by slicing it up into many layers which fit on top of one another. It is very versatile as it works with most printers and can be used in two modes (basic and expert) for more control over project outcome.
- 123D Catch – Is a free app for Windows operated devices (including smartphones) which allows you to take photos of an object from different angles and then composites the file into a 3D model.
- FreeCAD – Is what is known as a “parametric” 3D modelling software, which allows the user to go back to previous versions of the file and edit the parameters, giving the designer greater control and room to be creative.
- Octoprint – With this software designers are able to go wireless and remove the software from the desktop altogether. It allows users to pause, and edit printing jobs and when combined with certain devices, enables the designer to monitor the printing process remotely.
3D printers work by layering material on top of itself, in a strategic build-up of product – hence the term Additive Manufacturing, you are literally adding layers to build objects! This enables the printer to construct almost any design with as many angles as possible, because it does not involve working with moulds or welding.
Initially, AM was only possible with a select type of plastic. However, the technology has progressed to the point that some printers are able to print food, metals, concrete and various types of polymer. Larger machines, which are used in the construction industry, have even been used to print houses, such as Chinese company WinSun’s apartment building.
A previously discussed, a wide variety of materials can be utilised to manufacture 3D designs. Particularly within the construction industry, this presents an opportunity to design structures which are both greener and more sustainable by using a mixture of recycled construction waste products such as concrete, fibreglass, sand and hardening agents: producing less waste overall and significantly reducing costs.
Insulating buildings also becomes easier, walls and rooftops can be designed with a hollow middle which is filled with insulation material, and then assembled onsite – allowing for faster construction and increased safety for workers.
Despite the many and varied benefits of utilising AM, many companies are still reluctant to adopt it because of high equipment costs. 3D printers require up to a 100x more energy than standard mould injecting equipment, which for many negates the possibility of building using sustainable materials. They can also produce large amounts of unhealthy emissions depending on the types of materials used, due to the heating process required to make the “ink”, making toxicity a serious issue.
There are also ethical questions, such as copyright, to consider. If designers are able to reproduce each other’s work simply by photographing the finished product, it can be increasingly difficult to determine who has the intellectual property rights.
In addition, there are concerns among many construction workers and business owners that AM technology will eliminate the need for skilled infrastructure professionals and labourers.
Although the construction industry has been the main focus of this piece, 3D printing technologies are being utilised across a number of sectors. These include:
- Catering Industry – many companies are using 3D printers to create sculptures using food and ice for events.
- Bioprinting – technologies are now being developed using AM to reproduce human and other tissues using stem cell research. Already there have been transplantations using organs and other tissue created using 3D printing technology.
- Fashion – many companies are now utilising 3D technologies to produce intricate designs for clothes, jewellery and even shoes which have a pocket for your iPhone!
- Outer Space – Organisations such as NASA and ESA have been exploring using AM to create buildings on the Moon or Mars, using magnesium oxide and a binding salt to transform the lunar or Martian soil into building materials.