3-D Printing, Construction and the Next Frontier
December 20, 2022
The Site Report has extensively discussed the developments of 3-D printing building construction and its impact on the construction industry. 3-D printing structures is becoming more commonplace. Last month, Iowa State University began designing 3-D printed housing for rural Iowa. ICON Technology, Inc., an Austin, Texas company, is currently planning to build an entire subdivision in Texas using its 3-D printing technology. Expanding on its 3-D construction experience, ICON recently entered into a contractual partnership with NASA that will see its 3-D construction technology used extraterritorially.
NASA launched the Artemis I on November 16, 2022 as its first step toward a return of astronauts to the Moon. NASA plans to have humans walking on the Moon by 2025. Once humans are back on the Moon, the challenge is how do they build a permanent base on the Moon. It costs roughly $10,000 per pound to launch a payload into space, so launching all the required building materials from Earth to build a Moon base is cost prohibitive. NASA’s answer to this problem is 3-D printing using robots and materials found on the Moon. NASA recently entered into a contract with ICON to 3-D print a Moon base on the surface of the Moon. The contract was awarded following ICON’s participation in NASA’s 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge along with its partner, the Colorado School of Mines. The competition included the construction of a sample structure that was tested for its ability to hold a seal, the strength of the structure, and the structure’s ability to endure extreme temperatures. 3-D printing is not just for pre-production models for consumer goods and home hobbyists anymore. It is a viable option for advancing humans’ exploration of space.
While 3-D printing a Moon base with robots seems completely revolutionary, the use of 3-D printing methods in construction is not a new process. In 1941, William E. Urchel developed the Wall Building Machine, a semi-automated machine that used a radial arm to lay layers of concrete to build circular structures. The machine used spinning disks on the side of the printing head to smooth the extruded concrete. The building process also featured tongue and groove fittings between the layers to increase adhesion. The Wall Building Machine’s is similar in design to the modern Apis Cor’s 3-D printing system. While the Wall Building Machine was developed in an attempt to help the military build bomb shelters and other structures on the battlefields of WWII, it was ahead of its time and did not see commercial success or widespread adoption. Ironically, the use of 3-D printing in construction has now come full circle with the U.S. Department of Defense contracting with ICON to construct concrete housing facilities at Fort Bliss in Texas utilizing ICON’s 3-D printing technology.
Even though the building of Moon bases and learning about the Wall Building Machine is interesting, the use of 3-D printing in construction does have widespread practical applications for the entire construction industry. While concrete 3-D printers used in the construction of structures are expensive at this time, costing between $180,000 to $1,000,000, as technology improves and the use of these machines becomes more mainstream, this manner of construction can revolutionize the industry. It will be revolutionary because not only is concrete a naturally sustainable and inexpensive building material, but also because these 3-D printers generate little waste. Moreover, 3-D printed construction greatly reduces the time it takes to construct a building compared to manual construction, reduces labor required to construct buildings, minimizes supply chain disruptions using alternative building materials, and allows contractors to build even complex structures that are aesthetically pleasing and resilient. 3-D concrete printed buildings can have a positive impact on the environment, and supply affordable housing where it is most needed.
Businesses throughout the economy are experiencing a labor crunch, including in the construction industry. The use of 3-D construction and robotic automation will alleviate the pressure on construction companies to hire sufficient salaried and hourly construction labor. That is because much of the tedious and time-consuming foundation and wall construction can be performed by large 3-D printers and other automated processes. In an effort to find cost effective ways to meet the current demands of the housing market in this tight labor market, ICON created a gantry-styled 3-D printer, operated from a smart device, to build architecturally innovative homes. Additional labor-saving construction automation is also being developed at Cornell’s College of Engineering. Cornell is conducting robotic research and testing to evaluate ways in which robots can be used to lay brick, print large scale metals, and print using recycled plastics. Over time, larger sized components, such as those used for bridge construction, may be printed with use of a robot. These technologies should help automate many tedious construction jobs, thereby eliminating the need for a large construction crew on-site, and help all eliminate the labor supply crisis.
3-D printing may also relieve the ubiquitous supply chain issues the construction industry is currently experiencing. While ICON uses its own cement building material, Lavacrete, in its construction, there are other building materials that can be used in conjunction with 3-D printing technology. These materials are more readily available, and 3-D printed buildings require fewer materials overall in their construction. By using fewer and materials that are easier to source, 3-D printing construction will lessen the impact of the supply chain issues that the construction industry is currently experiencing. Additionally, the lower labor and material costs associated with 3-D printing will permit for more affordable and faster construction.
Increased use of 3-D printing will also positively impact the environment by reducing the carbon footprint for the construction industry, generally. As of 2021, the construction industry is responsible for more than 34 percent of energy demand and approximately 37 percent of energy and process-related carbon dioxide emissions according to the 2022 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction. This is significant because the construction industry will be forced to alter how construction projects are completed in order to meet global climate change goals. Moreover, in the United States, the push by the federal government, through Executive Order 14057 (the “Federal Sustainability Plan”), and some state governments to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 does not overlook the impacts the construction industry has on climate change. As a result, 3-D printing construction will assist the construction industry as a whole, particularly on public projects, meet governmental environmental mandates by reducing carbon emissions and material usage, and incorporating more “green” and recycled materials into construction projects.
Building codes will need to be changed to include 3-D printing. This is important because changes to the code will legitimize the use of 3-D printing in construction, set standards for manufacturers to follow, and establish code that other state regulators can adopt to further expand the use of 3-D printing nationally. Montana was the first state to update its building codes to include 3-D printing construction. It is anticipated that as 3-D printing construction matures that more states will follow Montana’s lead.
Construction of homes using 3-D printing has the potential to provide low cost housing to first-time buyers, homeless populations, and to those displaced following natural disasters. The use of the 3-D technology has expanded to the extent that the global market for construction using 3-D printing methods is expected to reach $114.4 million in 2023. As the use of 3-D printing in construction expands, we expect more states to adopt codes regulating the materials and processes in an effort to set standards that will likely exceed traditional construction methods, and the acceptance of 3-D printing will become more widespread. If you would like help navigating this brave new world of construction, please contact Spilman’s Construction Practice Group.