Let us welcome 3D printing with open arms as an in-progress case study on innovation, writes Robert Bird Group’s Paul Mullett

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In the past few years additive manufacturing, or 3D printing as it is commonly known, has risen in the construction industry’s consciousness. Evoking images of fluid, organic, sometimes other-worldly, sustainable structures, 3D printing challenges us to envision new paradigms for both architecture and building.

The promise is tantalising; an era where the industry can break free from the shackles of rectilinear forms, where we can finally build what we imagine at a cost that is both economically and environmentally viable.

Paul mullett bw 2018

However from the original concept for Contour Crafting of buildings, developed by Khoshnevis at the University of Southern California in the early 2000s, to the most recent examples of 3D printed building construction in the Middle East, the industry has still been unable to demonstrate practical value or show that the technology can genuinely deliver in a real-world construction environment. 

>> Projects: How 3D printing is changing construction

While some larger contractors have specialist divisions or partnerships to explore the technology, it still remains on the fringes of the construction industry.

The sceptics will claim this is because 3D printing is a red herring; a non-starter in an industry that has no need of its fanciful intricacies and no time for its demanding complexities. However, the more persuasive argument is that the inability of the industry to clearly identify its potential value is more a failure of the industry than the technology itself.

So far 3D printing has provided clients with Instagrammable pet-projects which, whilst perhaps fulfilling a need for technological field trials, do very little to demonstrate its potential for disruption of the industry. Such demonstration projects often attempt to simply swap out traditional construction elements (either permanent works or formwork) with 3D printing and usually do so through a one-off competitive tender process which typically fails to provide a suitable environment for innovation.

A true understanding of the technological and economic opportunities and limitations of 3D printing will only be realised if the industry works with clients to see beyond short-term ambition and embrace a more integrated and collaborative approach that will identify and deliver real value. This expectation of short-term gain is perhaps exacerbated by the level of misinformation and hype that is typically perpetuated by the internet for emerging technologies; a dialogue that tells of the arrival of a new age in construction where technology pushes ahead of industry, where promise trumps technical detail, and where disruption is unfortunately confused with value.

We should therefore have sympathy for those stakeholders who are considering whether or not to embrace emerging technologies such as 3D printing. Good, impartial advice and meaningful data is very hard to come by and is often limited in its applicability. For example, data included in the recent publication Construction 4.0 on the comparison of 3D printing vs traditional construction for a small-scale housing project (50m2) in the Middle East indicates that it can potentially offer savings of up to one third. These savings come primarily from site labour, site supervision, plant, formwork and materials. However, this data is heavily caveated and contains geographic, logistical and market specifics that make its wider applicability unclear.

Whilst it is refreshing to see that the 3D printing specialists themselves are controversially calling each other out as encouraging ‘fake news’ on the performance, benefits and limitations of the technology, it remains unclear where the industry will get the data it needs to take important decisions without proper industry-sponsored research that looks transparently at the issues of cost at a meaningful scale.

Meanwhile, other forms of industrialised construction, with more tried and tested materials and technology, are leveraging digital tools and innovative business models to drive significant progress.

While 3D printing offers a different set of opportunities, and has unique challenges, the reality is that it will have to vie for its place in the contractor’s toolkit alongside other emerging forms of Modern Methods of Construction (MMC). And just as those other alternative methods of construction have historically struggled to demonstrate value in a fractured and compartmentalised industry, so 3D printing will also have to face up to the challenge.

More fundamentally, it must first take the leap from proof-of-concept to a viable construction alternative, and to do so it will need to demonstrate that it works in practice and can add value in a real-world construction environment.

And this is the crux of the challenge for both 3D printing and the industry. It will require investment, collaboration, an integrated approach and a long-term commitment to overcome the array of technological, material, design, health and safety, logistical and operational hurdles that exist in implementing it on an industrial scale.

This will require a different mindset and a degree of enterprise that the industry is still unfamiliar with; a fundamental gap that we must all strive to close. Let us welcome 3D printing with open arms, as an in-progress case study on innovation and as a much-needed catalyst for change. 

Paul Mullett, group engineering and technology director, Robert Bird Group