Co-founder/CEO of Monsoon Blockchain
The gulf between those who are sanguine and those who are circumspect about 3D building construction is as great as the one between the cutting-edge city of Dubai and the woods of upstate New York, which also happen to be two places where the technology has been put to use.
More on that in a minute. For now, consider that those who are optimistic about such construction point to the fact that it is faster, cheaper and more environmentally friendly than conventional means. They also believe it can be part of the solution to the global housing crisis, which has reached epidemic proportions.
On the other hand, there are those who wonder about 3D construction’s impact on the labor force -- about how many jobs will be lost, should this practice ever become commonplace.
On balance, though, there is far more to like about 3D construction than not. Sustainability is a huge plus, as to date 3D houses have been constructed from such materials as clay, straw and bioplastic.
Then there is the manner in which this practice could address the housing shortage, which has become acute.
Some 150 million people around the globe were homeless as of 2019, which accounts for two percent of the world’s population. As staggering as those numbers are, they pale in comparison to those who lack adequate housing. Some 1.6 billion people fall into that category, or 20 percent of the world’s population. The United Nations has ascertained that solving the problem would likely involve building 100,000 new houses every day for the next 15 years.
It stands to reason, then, that 3D construction should be explored, given the advantages listed above. And indeed it has begun to gain momentum. In Garrison, NY, a 500-square-foot, two-story house called TERA was under construction as of late 2019. It represents the latest in a series of 3D houses, dating back to 2016. Others have been built in China, The Netherlands, Russia, the U.S. (specifically Texas), Mexico, the Czech Republic and Italy.
In 2016 a 3D office building was also erected in Dubai, where state-of-the-art architecture has become the norm. That city, located in the United Arab Emirates, is also the site of the world’s largest 3D building, a 6,900-square-foot office building completed in February 2020.
The hope in Dubai is that by 2030, fully 25 percent of the city’s new buildings will be constructed via 3D printer. And globally, 3D construction is expected to become a $40 billion industry by 2027.
Again, though, what becomes of the workforce? As with other forms of technology, the suggestion is that upskilling is a possible solution for those whose jobs would be lost to 3D construction. And a 2018 report from the Associated General Contractors of America makes the case that instead of creating massive unemployment, 3D construction would actually ease labor shortages.
As Capt. Matthew Friedell, head of the U.S. Marine Corps’ 3D printing operations told Scientific American “the ultimate goal” at sites using such technology is “to have one person stand there and hit ‘print.’ ”
JLL project manager Richard Sansom agrees that 3D construction could dramatically change “on-site working methodologies and demographics.” As he put it in a piece on his company’s website, “Construction workers are quite commonly young and male -- by removing the traditionally labor-intensive elements of construction, 3D printing would open possibilities for all people to be integrated into the workforce.”
It has also been pointed out that worker safety would be greatly improved by this practice. The traditional material used in construction is concrete, which is very heavy and difficult to work with. With the advent of 3D printing, that’s not an issue. Because workers’ tasks are less physically demanding, their chances of injury decline.
There are some caveats, though, not the least of which is that the construction industry has been slow to embrace change. As Sansom put it, it “hasn’t evolved for decades.”
“What’s required,” he added, “is a few pioneers that can produce a commercially viable model for 3D printed buildings, one that attracts industry attention and investment.”
On a practical level, there is the challenge of operating in extreme climates, like that of Dubai. Construction companies have had to double-check their end-products to ensure that they will remain structurally secure under such conditions.
It should also be noted that 3D printers don’t come cheaply, and that there is a learning curve for those who will use them. This retraining process can lead to a more protracted timeline for early projects.
But the good -- like speed and cost-effectiveness -- far outweighs the bad. While traditional construction projects tend to be protracted, some 3D houses can be built in as few as 24 hours. And because 3D printers precisely measure the materials needed for each project, costs can be controlled and waste minimized.
All of this makes 3D construction a very attractive option going forward -- all the more so given the fact that the technology is in its relative infancy, and can only be expected to be refined and improved.
Yes, there are concerns about the labor implications of this development. But with the proper upskilling, that issue can be minimized, and 3D construction can become the ultimate win-win.
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