3D Printing Building Products ... And Entire Houses

Folkert Haag

Imagine waking up to find that the walls around you have disappeared, replaced by desecrated crumbles of concrete, slats of wood, and a seemingly endless horizon of destruction. A natural disaster has struck, and you are suddenly homeless.

Until now, such a situation almost certainly meant sleeping on a friend’s couch or in a homeless shelter. Now, however, there’s a technology that makes it possible to replace your home—literally replace it—in less than a day. Thanks to 3D printing, building a home in 24 hours is not only possible, it is a reality.

The emergence of 3D printing marks an integral part of what many people refer to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution—aka Industry 4.0, or the Internet of Things.

The umbrella term “Internet of Things” encompasses a variety of contemporary automation tools, manufacturing technologies, and types of data exchange. It speaks to the collision of cyber-physical processes that help bridge the connection between customers and suppliers. It signifies our capacity to fuse biological, physical, virtual, and chemical properties. For example, as it relates to 3D printing terms, a production order can be generated by a consumer and projected to the machine, with production data sent to the distribution partner. All this can occur in real time, thereby speeding up the whole manufacturing process exponentially and requiring far fewer resources.

This innovation is making a notable impact on the building materials industry. Here’s how.

Advantages in construction

In the last decade, engineering research teams have been experimenting with ways to utilize 3D printing to make components of buildings and homes. Using enormous printers, specialized concrete, and a composite mixture, they have created a much thicker concrete that is self-supportive while it sets.

By doing so, a new realm of possibility has opened up for architects around the globe. No longer are the typical design constraints in place, as curvilinear forms are possible without the cost and process limitations of rectangular processing. This not only brings innovation, but it also solves a well-known secret among designers: Rectangular structures are the weakest possible structural forms.

Moreover, structural components that are generated from 3D printing, also known as “concrete crafting,” use fewer materials than the same components made using standard concrete-forming techniques. While curved concrete structures that are poured into forms are solid, those that are created from 3D printing can be hollow. This allows space for necessary building services right inside the structural elements of the building.

Although 3D printing of building materials isn’t yet available for commercial use, its potential brings another exciting possibility: reduced costs, which can have a tremendous social impact. By using far fewer materials and much less labor, this is a much more inexpensive method of construction.

Coming full circle

Previous industrial revolutions managed to take the manufacturing process out of the hands of the general consumer and instead required specialists to produce materials in factories. The latest shift marks a change in approach, however. With the advent of the 3D printer, manufacturing machinery has slowly returned to the general public. This allows for greater creativity and increased production rates. Similar to Foucault’s pendulum, it seems society’s industrial revolution is coming full circle. 3D innovator Bre Pettis noted, “Before the Industrial Revolution, everybody did work at home; there was a cottage industry. Then you had to go to the factory to work. Now we’re bringing the factory back to the individual.”

The impact on construction is evident. By reducing the need for specialists, housing has the potential to become much more accessible for everyone, including people in third-world countries.

Current inroads

Sometimes progress is a slow-moving machine. Despite increasing production speeds and allowing for more cost-effective tweaks, a mere .01 percent of all manufacturing output is crafted from 3D printers.

Though the rate at which society is adopting 3D printing is comparable to a snail’s pace, there are noteworthy inroads being made. In fact, experts predict that the 3D printing industry will triple by 2020 to $21 billion, the bulk of which stems from demand in North America and Europe. This follows an already knock-your-socks-off implosion, with the year-after-year growth of 30 percent.

Architects are definitely taking note. In Beijing, a Chinese company built a 400-square-meter villa in just 45 days using a robotic arm attached to a 3D printer head. Meanwhile, a company in France is experimenting with using 3D printers to craft emergency shelters that can be used to house the homeless and people displaced by natural disasters. Lest we think only of housing when it comes to construction, a firm in Amsterdam is proving us wrong, using two robots to print a bridge that supports them as they go.


All this innovation isn’t without obstacles.

There are barriers to employing additive manufacturing to produce finished parts, and these are unlikely to change anytime soon. The success of 3D printing suffers from an unreliability of material and building properties, inconsistency of print quality, and the expense of raw materials, among other concerns.

Additionally, global demand for manufactured products is slow, according to the International Monetary Fund. Political uncertainty and Brexit concerns add to the challenges. Foreign trade is at a record low, and certain governments are making the free flow of goods a question mark.

All of this is to underscore the importance of productivity gains given the technology’s slow growth.

As businesses weigh the role of 3D printing in their production and distribution methods, there are important considerations. Worth noting is the steep learning curve that such technology presents.

Learn how to bring new technologies and services together to power digital transformation; download The IoT Imperative for Energy and Natural Resource Companies. Explore how to bring Industry 4.0 insights into your business today: Industry 4.0: What’s Next?

Folkert Haag

About Folkert Haag

Folkert Haag is the global lead for building materials industries at SAP, and is part of the solution management team of the mill products and mining industry unit.