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Large-Scale Additive Manufacturing: Future of 3D Printing in Construction?

Large-Scale Additive Manufacturing: Future of 3D Printing in Construction?

The AEC industry is one of the biggest benefactors of technology. Reality capture tools have enabled faster scanning, AI is optimizing workflows, and now researchers are studying the potential of large-scale additive manufacturing or 3D printing in the construction industry!

Currently, 3D printing’s use in construction is restrained because the printers have small print chambers. But research on large-scale additive manufacturing is picking up pace and it can change how we approach construction forever!

What is additive manufacturing?

Additive manufacturing (AM) or 3D printing, is a process of using digital models to create 3-dimensional objects by layering materials on top of one another. 

3D printing is being adopted globally for making industrial prototypes, scale models, toys, jewelry, and many other consumer products. To implement it in construction though, we need to make it bigger, with robots and all. 

Large-scale additive manufacturing in construction 

Advances in large-scale AM have birthed some amazing hardware. Robots, with their higher freedom of movement and large gantry-based systems, can be used to print larger structures. 

As for the materials, ultra-high-performance concrete (UHPC) can be used. In his Fast Company article, James Rose, Director of the Institute for Smart Structures at the University of Tennessee, said plastics and polymers can also be used in large-scale AM for construction. 

“These materials are incredibly versatile, and they can be formulated in ways that meet a wide range of specific structural and aesthetic requirements. They can also be produced from recycled and organically derived materials,” he said.

To create structures, professionals must first create 3D models using the materials they will use to print. The model must then be analyzed to determine potential hazards and structural deficiencies.

Applications of large-scale AM in construction

Applications of large-scale AM or 3D printing are varied; from designing and constructing new structures to the restoration of existing ones. 

Large Building Components

Large-scale AM can be used to produce large building components such as walls, roofs, and floors. The entire component can be created in single pieces, resulting in a faster and more cost-effective construction process.

Prefabrication of Building Modules

Additive manufacturing can also be used for prefab construction. Building components can be manufactured off-site and then transported to the actual site for assembly. 3D printing of these components will speed up the process even further. 

Creation of Customized Building Components

Large-scale additive manufacturing can be used to create customized building components that are tailored to clients’ needs. Architects and design professionals just need to create digital models of complex structures and leave everything else to the 3D printer! 

Renovation/restoration of structures

Another exciting application of large-scale additive manufacturing in the AEC industry is the restoration of structures. Be it a regular building or a cultural heritage site, restoration efforts can be carried out without risking additional damage to the structure. 

Constructing Sustainable and Affordable Housing

Large-scale additive manufacturing can be a sustainable and affordable housing solution. 3D printing can create energy-efficient houses, with reduced material waste, and quicker construction time. This approach can help construction firms decarbonize construction and achieve net zero. 

3D printing still must evolve a lot to be fully adopted in construction. The advantages might have you bobbing your head in agreement, but some obvious disadvantages need to be addressed.

Disadvantages of large-scale AM in construction

One of the main challenges is the high initial investment required for the technology, which can be a barrier for small to medium-sized construction firms. Furthermore, the range of materials available for large-scale additive manufacturing is still limited. Perhaps more research and development in this area will give us new materials!

3D printing has been around for a long time, but few can use it proficiently in construction. A lack of skilled labor can create a bottleneck in adopting technology in construction processes.

James Rose also talked about the barriers to implementing large-scale AM. He says “Perhaps the biggest thing to overcome is its novelty. There is an entire infrastructure built around traditional forms of construction like steel, concrete, and wood, which include supply chains and building codes. In addition, the cost of digital fabrication hardware is relatively high, and the specific design skills needed to work with these new materials are not yet widely taught.”

Despite these challenges, large-scale additive manufacturing has the potential to transform the AEC industry and lead to more sustainable, cost-effective, and efficient construction practices. The construction industry is suffering because of increased input and commodities costs. Moreover, sustainable construction is now a priority and the reason it’s being pushed so hard is that the construction industry is one of the biggest contributors to annual global CO2 emissions. 

Just like large-scale additive manufacturing, we need more research and developments into technologies that will propel the AEC industry toward the net-zero era!

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