From the HWZ CAS Digital Disruption course on intelligent construction and 3D printing presented by Agnès Petit from Mobbot AG, Pierre Corboz provides the following overview:

Under the mantle of Artificial Intelligence, there are dozens of primary research fields that capture the imagination of the public, companies, and investors. One area that scores in the bottom group regarding global investments in AI, stuck between healthcare and hospitality, is digital technologies in construction, based on McKinsey digitalization index of 2016. Why?

The lack of major investments in that area, despite the growing buzzwords like BIM (Building Information Modelling) and the use of big data to create smart cities (à la Kalasatama) and a new record-setting 320’000 patents in 3D printing in the US last year, results that Switzerland still lags in terms of dedicated investments while enjoying a sky rocking construction decade.

3D Printing - Disruption in construction

3D Printing – Disruption in construction

What is 3D printing and what impact does it have on construction?

Referred to as additive manufacturing, it differs largely from today’s methods that rest on subtractive methods. Here, the aim is to add layers by layers the necessary material to reach the needed structure. Usually, a 3D printer creates, based on a digital design file or a CAD file, a three-dimensional object by “layering” steps by step a substance to achieve the pre-defined model. To be specific, the printing machine can either ejects liquids/ semiliquid’s, apply powdered solids or melt plastic/metals.

The word additive here plays a specific role, as the additives used are numerous and very different, based on the type and the need of the industry using the 3D printing technology. Nylon, metal, plastics, and wood are used for commercial sized 3D printers.

Moving over at the industrial level, then the additives can be resins, ceramics, paper, wax, concrete, mortar and sandstones. The actual type of printing used, then varies as well, among which we will find for example Stereolithography (UV Beams focused on photopolymer resin), Fused Filament Fabrication (melted plastic layering – thermoplastic materials) to Selective Laser Sintering (for nylon/polyamides). The impact is felt in every segment. Healthcare with printed casts, hearing aids or dental fixtures;

The food industry with printed chocolate, cookies or even pizzas. Pharmaceutical is delivering customized implants for drug delivery via 3D printing. Moreover, the fashion and jewelry world are just getting started, using 3D printing to deliver intricate designs.

These processes rely on Computer Aided Data (CAD) models which lean heavily on advanced analytics, digging into big data to understand and compute where pressure, weight or friction is most needed and where it is not. Most of the time, the cost of the complexity is the show stopper in traditional construction processes, where low numbers end up being red figures. Additive manufacturing when scaled against the traditional process and with higher units, gains the upper hand: small volumes are cheap to produce, and the design advantages outweigh the costly machining costs that subtractive manufacturing needs, where a single demand results to a unique custom made mold that must be constructed with great effort, again and again. Unsustainable.

Here, 3D printing offers a unique advantage. It is the perfect prototyping tool. You can quickly fabricate a scale model of a physical part or assembly using 3D computer data (CAD).  The need to print can also be differentiated between the additive manufacturing of molds (consumer-based object for example) and the additive manufacturing of finished goods (think buildings or elements), allowing for any form prototyping to take place at a fraction of the cost of subtractive assembly.

More importantly, the designs that it can achieve are unparalleled to date – often pushing this new wave of construction to be called the creative-disruption as not only are the technics used brand new, but the designs are practical without limits.

The lack of competition is the downside to this sector which results in the needed plastics and raw material, as well as the lack of talent to be expensive and scarce, which inevitably slows innovation. In some cases, the lack of quality in material tolerance and finish as well as in overall manufacturing guidelines makes it frustrating to prove the case.

Not only does cost play a major role, but other important and decisive factors make it innovative, despite the above setbacks. The setting up time allows for production when needed versus stock keeping and allows the customer to practically select and create any shape necessary even lattice trabeculae form that was unachievable in the past.

It pushes designers to focus on the functionality, and the reality is that it ends up by producing lightweight and durable parts that outlast traditional technics. So resistant, that when GE Aviation switched from subtractive to additive technics in the GE9X engine, it went from 855 components to 12 3D printed parts, reducing costs by 2-3 million UDS and simplifying the assembly and supply chain. Using Titanium Edged CMC (Ceramic Matrix Composite) printing, it allowed for 10% more fuel efficiency once deployed. Siemens demonstrated how it could reverse engineer important parts to restore a 100-year-old motor car, delivering what would have simply been unsustainable with subtractive construction.

Sounds like a done deal? Invest in 3D concrete printing for construction!

Reality is that today, 3D printing is 0.03% of the estimated US 10 Trillion manufacturing market (Bain & Company 2015) but shows a CAGR of 30% in the last years. That double-digit growth. The UK has put into place a National Strategy for Additive Manufacturing and has estimated that it could contribute more than US 1 Billion to the country’s GDP (BCG, 2018) once fully implemented.

Patents filed are growing. Dr. B. Khoshnevis contour crafting building technique might be the spark to set fire to this segment. Companies that have invested and that are supplying this technology, like WinSun, claim to be able to construct simple homes in 24 hours – entirely driven by 3D printing robots. XtreeE in France builds woven concrete benches, and MX3D builds bridges, all driven by in-depth big data analysis and executed by 3D printing robots.

In Switzerland, where traction in construction is still low, Agnès Petit with Mobbot AG is laying groundbreaking automated construction methods. Introducing the only method in 3D concrete printing where integrating passive reinforcement and smooth surfaces in only one manufacturing step is offered – solving some of the issues found when building houses or bridges where post-tensioned, external reinforcement or filling with concrete is still needed – adding to the cost of additive printing. With Mobbot AG this is no longer the case. These are the type of innovation needed to accelerate the acceptance and deployment of this technology into the world of construction.

We love seeing disruption in action and tend to focus on software and consumables, but it is happening while crossing a bridge, moving into a new house or taking a flight to New York. As CNN quoted early this year “Will the world’s next megacity drip out of a 3D printer?” – It might well be – change is shy in the construction world but on the way. Disruption never rests!