3D printing technology has had a revolutionary impact on enterprises around the world. It enables businesses to quickly develop models and prototypes, expediting their ability to test and fine-tune new products. It also makes it easy and affordable to manufacture parts and components that keep important machineries working as intended, such as medical testing and diagnostic equipment.
As an industry, 3D printing is poised for growth. A report conducted by Grand View Research projected a 20.8% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) in the 3D printing market between 2022 and 2030, with the number of 3D printers used worldwide expected to increase from 2.2 million units to 21.5 million units.
One of the most exciting applications of 3D printing technology is in the construction industry. 3D printing is now being used to construct entire homes, office buildings, and other structures. 3D-printed buildings can span thousands of square feet and multiple stories, and they can be made with lower costs and less waste than traditionally constructed buildings.
For civil engineers, 3D-printed buildings represent one of the most significant constructions and design trends. As the NFPA Journal notes, these buildings may provide not only a solution to the affordable housing crisis but potentially provide a way to make space habitable for human beings. Because of paradigm-shifting innovations such as these, aspiring engineers who want to learn what civil engineers do should become familiar with 3D printing and its impact on engineering.
This guide to 3D printing provides comprehensive information on 3D-printed buildings, including materials needed, important engineering considerations, and related resources.
What Is 3D Printing?
Industrial 3D printing is a manufacturing-driven process that produces physical materials and objects from a digital plan or design. It employs large-scale machinery into which an engineer inputs floor plans and building designs. Concrete and other building materials are then fed into the machine. An extendable arm, or nozzle, then applies the mix of building materials in thin layers, guided by software. The entirety of the building or structure is then produced (or “printed”) according to the engineer’s specifications, one layer at a time. While methods vary, many 3D printing techniques require very little additional assembly from workers.
The Benefits of 3D Printing
3D-printed buildings offer a number of benefits:
- 3D printing ensures construction materials are used exactly; there is no waste, as the printer can precisely administer building materials according to the blueprint.
- Both because there is so little material waste and because fewer human workers are needed to assemble the structure, 3D-printed buildings can be highly cost-effective. Some builders have been able to make homes for around $4,000, pointing toward potential options for low-cost housing.
- Less material waste and shorter construction times also mean 3D-printed buildings have a smaller environmental impact than more traditionally constructed buildings.
3D Printing Technologies
A number of specific technologies can be used to produce 3D-printed materials and concepts. Fused filament fabrication, or FFF, is a 3D printing method that employs a continuous filament of thermoplastic material. It is sometimes referred to as fused deposition modeling (FDM).
An alternative 3D printing method is stereolithography (SLA), which builds models, structures, and patterns layer by layer through a photochemical process that uses light to turn a liquid resin into hardened plastic.
To fully understand the different applications of 3D printing, it’s important to note just how easy it is for engineers to tweak, adjust, or modify a model simply by using software. The 3D printing technology can then reflect those changes with precision. This allows for on-demand customization, as production can be adapted with very little lead time or added inefficiency.
Learn More About 3D Printing
To discover additional information about 3D printing technology, these resources may be useful:
- Interesting Engineering, “Your Future Home Will Probably Be 3D Printed: How 3D Printing Is Changing the Construction Industry.” Learn some of the trends that are shaping 3D printing and increasing its viability in the construction industry.
- ExplainThatStuff, “3D Printers.” Find out how basic 3D printing technology functions.
- ResearchGate, “Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF)-based 3D Printer and its Design: A Review.” Explore the mechanics and functions of FFF in this scientific journal piece.
- FormLabs, “Guide to Stereolithography (SLA) 3D Printing in 2020.” A comprehensive guide to how SLA printing technology works.
What Material Is Used for 3D Printing?
The construction and engineering applications for 3D printing are diverse. 3D printing has been used to make buildings of all different types and varying levels of complexity, from single-family homes to multistory office buildings to bridges. These structures must be as sturdy as traditionally made construction projects, which means the materials used to create 3D printed structures must be reliable.
Types of Materials
While 3D-printed buildings can be made from a number of different components, the most common method involves a mix of concrete, fiber, sand, and geopolymers. These different raw materials are thoroughly mixed in a large “hopper,” at which point they can be fed into the extrusion apparatus and layered into the correct shapes and patterns. There have also been instances of homes 3D printed from fully biodegradable materials, including mud, soil, straw, and rice husks.
Recently, the 3D-printed building industry has seen some significant milestones. The largest 3D-printed building in the world was erected in Dubai at the beginning of 2020. An administrative office building, it spans more than 6,900 square feet. Meanwhile, Russian company Apis Cor has innovated new methods for building 3D-printed single-family homes in under 24 hours, even in extreme weather conditions.
Learn More About 3D-Printed Buildings
Some additional resources related to 3D-printed buildings include:
- TechRadar, “This Is the World’s Largest 3D-Printed House.” See an amazing example of 3D printing technology in action.
- 3DSourced, “The 12 Most Exciting 3D-Printed House Builds 2022.” Browse some additional examples of 3D-printed construction.
- 3DRific, “5 Materials 3D-Printed Houses Are Made Of.” Learn more about some of the materials used in 3D-printed buildings.
Challenges to 3D-Printed Buildings
While 3D printing provides civil engineers with a number of opportunities, it also comes with challenges. Specifically, engineers may face hurdles related to structural inhabitability, material integrity, and equipment limitations.
One longstanding concern with 3D-printed buildings is that 3D printing technology is not, in and of itself, enough to make buildings habitable. While 3D printers can make walls and frames, they have historically come up short in terms of quality-of-life essentials such as infrastructure for running water and electricity, to say nothing of HVAC work.
In recent years, 3D printing technology has made some strides, with new methods being developed for printing some basic electrical and plumbing components. Additionally, engineers can design homes in such a way that the basic 3D-printed structures are easily retrofitted with traditional pipes, wiring, and ducts.
An even more serious drawback is that 3D-printed structures, when tested, usually turn out to be less strong and sturdy than more conventional buildings. This is because the materials used in 3D-printed buildings tend to break down and lose some of their structural integrity over time.
Engineers have long been working on new material methods that can withstand rigorous testing and comply with all pertinent building safety codes. There have already been many successes in this regard, including refining existing concrete and polymer mixes and incorporating biodegradable materials.
It should also be noted that, while 3D printers have come a long way, the equipment itself still has limitations. While one of the great promises of 3D printers is that they can do the work of many machines at once, the reality is that a lot of 3D printers are restricted in their functionality. This means they can make large structures, but not necessarily complex or detailed ones.
One of the primary goals in the 3D printing industry today is to innovate new construction methods that are efficient and low-cost, but that also enables a wider range of precision and functionality. Companies such as WinSun, in China, have gained attention for their amazing productivity (including the capability to build 10 homes in a day, with each house costing around $4,800 to build), though it remains to be seen how durable these buildings truly are.
Learn More About Potential Challenges
For additional insight, consider:
- Architizer, “Architects: Here’s the Problem with 3D-Printed Buildings.” This opinion piece outlines some of the lingering concerns about 3D-printed construction.
- Construction World, “3D Printing: 8 Major Changes Coming to Construction.” This piece points out the peripheral challenges to 3D printing that go beyond the 3D printing process, such as labor force reduction and decreased demand for raw, traditional materials.
Other Solutions Offered by 3D Printing
While 3D printing has long been upheld as a potential solution to the global housing crisis, that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what the technology is capable of. The ability to quickly and affordably create models, products, or patterns has already proven useful in response to unexpected catastrophes.
Important Applications of 3D Printing
For evidence of how 3D printing can be lifesaving in a crisis, consider some of the ways in which it has come into play during the COVID-19 pandemic:
- 3D printing technology has been used to quickly construct ventilator valves for hospitals in need, allowing them to continue offering life support services to patients in critical condition. One hospital in Italy had more than 100 lifesaving valves made in a 24-hour window, according to the BBC.
- 3D printers have also been used to create personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers, such as face shields, in areas where such equipment became scarce. A CNN report notes that at the peak of the pandemic, 3D printing companies provided hospitals with thousands of face shields per week, allowing health care workers to take the precautions they needed.
- 3D printing has also been used to make the swabs necessary for COVID-19 testing, according to BioSpace.
- 3D printing has played a significant role in helping hospitals build new medical equipment or repair damaged equipment.
The Future of 3D-Printed Buildings
The construction industry is ready for innovation, even while it continues to face longstanding problems. Traditional construction methods can be wasteful, time-consuming, expensive, and hazardous to the environment. Through the precision, speed, and reliability of 3D printing, civil engineers have a number of opportunities to correct these problems and potentially make it simpler and more affordable to design and build habitable structures.
When it comes to the future of 3D buildings, even the sky may not be the limit. NASA and the European Space Agency have begun brainstorming ways to use 3D building technology to create habitable buildings in space or even Martian colonies. Given the innovations of the past decade, the possibilities for this cutting-edge technology are boundless.