3D printers: breakthrough innovation for the construction industry



3D printers: breakthrough innovation for the construction industry

Who hasn't heard of 3D printers? This cutting-edge technology is set to revolutionise numerous sectors, including the construction sector. As with any groundbreaking innovation, it is difficult at this stage to gauge its scope and the impact it will have on our economic model.

I first saw this type of machine in Lille in 2003, in the Robert-jan Van Santen & associates design office, which specialises in designing building envelopes. We were working on developing an overroof system. One of the associate architects showed us a fixing element workpiece made using a 3D printer. At the time, the plastic seemed like a sort of powder amalgamated by a binding agent. It was a realistic element that allowed direct visualisation of the solution when installed with the other zinc elements of the system. In other words, it was possible to anticipate the potential and the time that could be saved in terms of research and development. Exciting and spectacular as it was, it must be said that the tool was very expensive and seemed to be still in its development phase.

So, twelve years on where do things stand? These machines have progressed remarkably, as has the software used to operate them. Their development is spreading exponentially. After just one decade 3D printers are in their first phase of democratisation. DIY enthusiasts can now buy electronic components on internet at a reasonable price, as well instruction manuals to learn how to programme their machines!

It is safe to bet that 3D printers will become household tools. For example, when gardening, you have finalised your timber-framed flower bed but the fixing you designed is not available in stores. No longer a problem: you'll soon be able to make it yourself!

Another remarkable fact relating to the development of 3D printers is that they can be developed for various purposes: miniaturisation or large scale projects (with “giant” printers). In 2014, surgeons in Louisville in the USA reconstituted the malformed heart of a newborn baby using a 3D printer, according to the MRI data, in order to “repeat” the operation which they succeeded the following day!

Eighteen months ago in Amsterdam, the Dus Architects firm launched the 3D printing of the first typically Dutch fifteen metre high “Canal House". The building was elaborated using plastic bricks assembled with incomparable precision, like huge Lego filled with special foam to make up a new rapid construction concept.

In China, structural work on several houses in the city of Suzhou was completed using 3D printing. The nozzle of a “giant” 3D printer, equipped with a portal over 10 metres high, methodically superimposed successive layers of recycled concrete that was specifically developed for the occasion. All this was done using an ordinary computer!

Last July, researchers at the University of Nantes created a 3D printer capable of manufacturing emergency accommodation measuring three by seven metres in less than half an hour.

In the same way as drones, which I discussed in a previous column, 3D printers are now no longer a privilege reserved for university researchers or wealthy industrials. These machines are playing an important role in R&D where they are accelerating innovation and resolving complex problems.

It is not difficult to imagine that 3D printers will also revolutionise on-site building practices.
Two major advantages are emerging for our sector: reduction in disturbance (reduction in building time) and reduction in the demanding nature of structural work for small and medium sized buildings.
Tradesmen and light work specialists will be able to increase their know-how and devote it to the completion of envelope systems.

A breakthrough revolution seems to be underway.
I will be discussing developments in 3D printing and the way it relates to the construction sector regularly.


Roger Baltus
Engineer- Architect
VMZINC Communication Director


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