Updated: May 29
In the wake of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) characterized by a fusion of technologies blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres. The world witnesses breakthroughs in numerous fields; Robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Nanotechnology, Quantum technology, the internet of things (IoT) are some of the fruits of this Era.
A close sibling to these is 3D printing technology, invented in the early 1980s in Japan by Hideo Kodana, a scientist at the Nagoya research institute. This discovery was followed by the development of Stereo lithography which was used to create models, prototypes, patterns, and production parts in a layer by layer fashion. This marked the beginning of additive manufacturing (AM)
The past 30 years has seen 3D printing evolve into many complex forms, proving its relevance in multiple industries including Manufacturing, Aerospace enginering, ship building, medicine, food, DIY, Fashion and many others. This computerized process that involves the use of additives applied in layers to form solid 3-dimensional Objects makes it possible for things to be produced from digital CAD files by printing not on a flat sheet of paper but into volumes.
A little over a decade ago was when the construction industry caught up with this trend and its progress has been remarkable. Various materials, techniques, and Large scale printing equipment have emerged as a result of extensive research and development in this field taking place in different parts of the world. When 3D Printing technology is used as a core method to erect buildings and building components, it is known as Construction 3D Printing.
3D printing has been described as a disruptive technology, challenging traditional methods of doing things and gradually gaining ground in the world of construction because of benefits such as speed, labour savings, material savings, safety and environmental sustainability to mention a few. A particular point of excitement and intrigue is the level of accuracy and design flexibility that is achieved with 3d printing. Architects and designers can now dream up the impossible and 3d printing makes any dream a reality at no extraordinary cost. Irregular shaped structures traditionally have staggered cost and fabrication implications, this consequence does not apply to 3D printing. A straight line construction and a complex shape construction costs the same to 3D print, surface area and material consumption now becomes the sole cause of cost differentiation.
The use of concrete as ink for 3D printing is widely adopted as the choice material, hence the acronym 3DCP which stands 3D Concrete Printing. This material is undergoing extensive research and refinement worldwide. Many combinations and formulas have been reached having properties that make it into a mix that is pumpable, extrudable and buildable. Printable ink for construction has been researched to the point where waste and technically anything can be prepared as ink for 3d printing. This capacity for recycling is a keypoint of its acceptance and is gradually gaining ground in many countries.
China has reportedly built no less than 10 bungalows, a 6 storey apartment building, a mansion of over 1,100sq.m and much more. Europe is at the forefront of research and development of 3DCP. The EU produced majority of the world's leading pioneers of 3D printing techniques applied for construction. Numerous projects are ongoing especially in France, Italy, the Netherlands and other EU nations. Dubai recently launched its 3D printing strategy and demonstrated this commitment whilst commissioning the first 3D printed office of the future. The Dubai 3D printing strategy is a major item on the country's future agenda; a unique global initiative that aims to exploit technology for the service of humanity and promote the status of the UAE and Dubai as a leading hub of 3D printing technology by the year 2030. Egypt reportedly awarded the project to build 20,000 3D printed residential housing units.
Challenges still exist such as slow rate of acceptance, lack of legislation and standardization of the process. Like all things new, these are to be expected and will be overcome as the technology advances. It is expected that the rest of the world will catch up as the new decade unfolds. For developing and emerging countries, this technology offers an advantage that can mitigate the shortage of skilled construction workers and improve the quality and accuracy of the end product. It also has the potential to solve problems of housing deficit in these economies. Eventually construction 3D printing technology will arrive the shores of Nigeria and Africa as a whole.
What will this mean for the construction industry in Nigeria? Speed and precision in construction, the problem of poor workmanship will be checked, material waste will be reduced considerably, accidents on the construction site will be completely eradicated. Certain trades will be affected particularly Masons because 3D concrete printing completely gets rid of the traditional laying of blocks. Another affected discipline is the carpenters' job of constructing temporary formwork because 3D printing eliminates the need for conventional moulds. The job of the iron bender, casting of the foundation and floor slabs remains unaffected, so also that of service installations, the roof, doors, windows and finishes as shown in the table below.
There still exists ample room for improvement of the process, research shows that the technology is currently beneficial for construction companies engaged in Large scale low rise buildings, it is not yet well suited for high rise buildings except in cases of off-site fabrication but will catch on eventually. Refinement and reliability will be achieved and with this, more disciplines are expected to be affected. 3D printing is the technology of the future and it has come to stay.