Many companies now look to the technology to produce products cheaper and faster – including the building industry.
But so far, 3D printed buildings are still in the experimental stages.
M. Hank Haeusler, associate professor at the University of New South Wales, is working with students at UNSW to look at 3D printing in the building industry in two different ways. One includes using a 3D printer with a cubic meter print volume using PLA (Poly Lactic Acid) or ABS (Acylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) materials, which are both commonly used in 3D printing.
“We’re planning to 3D print large structural components out of PLA or ABS, but naturally PLA or ABS is not structurally sound,” Haeusler said.
To help with this, the university plans to use PLA or ABS with carbon fibre.
“Through the carbon fiber collating we are able to give the material the strength of steel, and therefore have a component that can be produced off-site and brought on-site,” Haeusler said.
The team is also in the early stages of looking at equipping a vehicle, such as a ute or small truck, with a gantry system that could do 3D printing on-site using a clay concrete-like material, which would involve developing a gantry system that could be unfolded.
Advantages of 3D printing in the building industry
Haeusler said one of the advantages of 3D printing in the building industry is reduced costs – he estimates it would cost around $400 to 3D print a 1m x 1m x 1m structural cube.
“I would argue, without having any kind of numbers in front of me, that we can produce at a third of the cost than what normal … manufacturing would be,” he said.
With an increasing worldwide population, Haeusler said 3D printing could meet the requirement for faster and quicker housing.
But he stressed it isn’t just for temporary or emergency shelter, but a long-term housing option.
“Housing prices are a global problem. Wherever you’re going to go in bigger cities, prices go up, not so much because the cost of building is so high, it’s just that the demand is so high,” Haeusler said.
“More and more people want to move into cities, they want to have a house very quickly. Therefore, you need to build quicker. 3D printing might be a way out.”
Currently there is no regulatory framework in Australia for 3D printed buildings, with new materials and techniques requiring an approval process.
Start 3D printing buildings
There are several challenges to overcome before we start 3D printing buildings. While the technology has been successful in industrial applications and printing complex shapes, Haeusler said scale is an issue in building applications.
For example, printing an entire glass frame system is problematic because the printers are not big enough.
“The other issue is if it is a non-steel material, the structural integrity [might] not be structurally sound,” Haeusler said.
“If it’s PLA or ABS, it’s an issue. Potentially also then things like fire proofing.”
However, Haeusler said those challenges will be overcome very quickly, especially considering if we look back at how fast the technology has improved over the past 10 years. Even supermarkets now sell 3D printers, with German discount supermarket Aldi selling 3D printers for $499 earlier this year.
“It’s the same thing as an A3 printer or A4 printer used to be 30 or 40 years ago. It just has infiltrated the office and design world very, very quickly. It’s just a matter of scaling things up,” he said.
Students at UNSW have shown just how cheaply a 3D printer can be made, with the 1 cubic metre 3D printer being used at the university designed and built by engineering students. It cost just $2,000 to make.
“All technology, the first prototype and the first theories of a product or a machine, is expensive. As soon as that hurdle is met and other companies get it as well, the price will drop,” he said.
Some companies are already dealing with the issue of size.
One of the largest 3D printers in the world is the KamerMaker, which was developed by Amsterdam-based company DUS Architects.
According to Gizmag, the machine can print polypropylene components up to 2.2m x 2.2m x 3.5m.
But while 3D printing houses might seem attainable in the near future, the question is whether people want to live in them.
“It’s the same thing with all new technologies – nobody really wants to be the first, but as soon as your neighbor starts having it, or you can see a few, that barrier breaks down, particularly if the cost aspect is appealing,” Haeusler said.