How Far Can We Go with 3D Printing in Construction?

You’re in the middle of a project, and you just broke a tool. Instead of searching for another one or going back to the shop for a replacement, you head over to the site trailer and fire up the 3D printer. In no time at all, you’re back on the job with a newly printed tool.

Sound far-fetched? It might not be for long if developers of 3D print technology have their way.

We’ve talked before about 3D printing on the blog, but there are so many exciting advances on the horizon that we decided to revisit the subject, and this definitely won’t be the last time you see 3D printing covered in Building Better.

Broken Wrench? No Problem.

One of the first introductions the public got to 3D print technology was a National Geographic piece about Z Corp and their “printed” wrench. You can catch the video here. The Nat Geo segment focused on replicating lost or broken tools for workers on space stations – a technology that would be just as handy here on the ground.

And you wouldn’t have to stick with small items — 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys demonstrated a printer that could produce a wrench more than 1.2 meters long.

Yeah, but Does It Only Do Plastic?

So, maybe you’re not convinced that 3D printing is going to have any meaningful impact on the job — after all, it just works with plastic-like materials and polymers, right?

Not anymore. Another player in the 3D printing race is EOS, which was featured in a video last year. This company has been working with metals, and has managed to print an aluminum heat exchanger for a Formula 1 race car and a titanium hip cup for artificial joints.

Still not convinced? Then let’s talk about contour crafting: Using 3D printing to create concrete walls and structures. Introduced by Behrokh Khoshnevis at the University of Southern California, this process involves feeding data to the machine, which uses various arms and nozzles to deposit concrete and smooth it into the desired shape.

This process even allows concrete to be poured in complex shapes, including empty spaces that could accommodate wiring and ductwork inside concrete walls. Theoretically, the process could build a 2,000 square foot house in around 20 hours, and would be ideal for emergency or low-income housing where cost and speed are major factors.

Print Your Next Home

While not exactly practical for real-life use yet, 3D printing can produce the components to build a whole house.

As we mentioned in our previous 3D printing post, Dutch company DUS Architects is working on the world’s first 3D-printed home. The company is printing the interior and exterior walls of the house at the same time, leaving gaps inside to hold wiring and pipes. Once the house is erected and wiring and pipes installed, the gaps will be filled with concrete to add insulation and to reinforce the structure.

The process isn’t exactly speedy — the company expects to finish in about three years — but it does present an interesting possibility for future home construction projects.

3D printing technology will have to be developed a bit more before you’re likely to see it on your jobsite — the process is currently very slow, and printers are expensive. But the potential benefits could be a game changer for the construction industry and we’ll be following along very closely.