3-D printing may endanger architecture profession

3-D printing may endanger architecture profession

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Another industrial revolution is underway and that may change business models and consumption patterns in the coming years. If it doesn’t it may top the list of greatest disappointments of the century.  Yes, we are talking about 3-D printing technology, a potential game changer. A technology which can make the concept of standardisation obsolete and consumer tastes and preferences going to reign supreme.

It is this invention which is being looked at as a promising potential technology which can solve the housing problem faced by 1.2 billion population world over. It is believed that 3D printing in the construction industry helps to save time, effort and material. But technology is in infancy stage of its evolution and its full potential yet to be unearthed.

But efforts are going on from America to Europe to Dubai to China to develop a perfect 3-D printer to construct buildings. For example, an Italian designer, Enrico Dini, has designed a printer that can make pieces up to 6 m square , using a computer to help build up fine layers of 5-10 mm thick. Final tests are being carried out on this two metres long machine before putting it into use to build house.  Ruijssenaars, of Universe Architecture in Amsterdam, aims to print a Möbius strip-shaped building with around 12,000 sq ft of floor space using the massive D-Shape printer. It will not be the world’s first 3D-printed building, however, as such projects have been undertaken in China and Dubai, albeit using a different method.

US based Branch Technology offers a patent pending 3D printing process called C-FAB™. This unparalleled process allows material to solidify in open space creating a cell-like matrix in virtually any shape or form. Also, Branch Technology has combined 3D printing, industrial robotics, and conventional building materials to enable a new way to build. This technology stack enables direct digital fabrication to provide you with cost effective design freedom.

CyBe Construction has developed the first mobile 3D Concrete printer which is able to move on caterpillar tracks: the CyBe RC 3Dp. This makes it easy to 3D print on-site. The mobile printer has a high printing speed and an extended printing range (upto 4.50 m height). “By using the printer in our iconical projects ourselves we develop – and continuously improve – concepts for various applications as buildings, wall elements, sewerpits, street furniture, etc. When buying a printer the customer gets access to these concepts so he can immediately start making money,” says CyBe. There are some advantages of using CyBe mortar vis-a-vis conventional portland cement. For example, CyBe mortar sets in 5 minutes and achieves structural strength in 1 hour thus minimising the chances of collapsing or falling walls. Further, the dehydration time is only 24 hours compared to 28 days with traditional concrete. Finishing of the walls/building can be done after 24 hours in case you are using CyBe mortar which is impossible with conventional concrete. A 3-D house using CyBe material was on display at this year’s Milan Design Week in April.

But 3-D printing cannot replace the entire process of house making. Excavation for foundation laying has to be done through conventional method. So is the case with inside electrification and plumbing and similar things. However, a mobile 3D printer can be used to print out the house’s concrete walls, partitions and building envelope and the same thing can be done in less than a day while in conventional method it may take months. However, painting, roofing, wiring, insualtion, etc is done manually. Currently, this is being attempted in building homes for communities in Haiti, El Salvador, and Bolivia. Most importantly, this process requires least amount of time from an architect! 

Proponents of customisation will be surprised to see that additive manufacturing (3-D printing is also known as additive manufacturing) offers limitless customisation and variety of designs which may not be humanly possible.  However, 3-D printing is not affected by volume of production as it doesn’t depend upon economies of scale concept. Thus, the manufacturer cannot go by the principle of “the more you produce, the less will be the cost” whereas individual buyer can enjoy a product of his specification quite different from the one his friend or neighbour has. Perhaps this is the greatest differencier vis-a-vis the first industrial revolution where manufacturer could reduce cost by resorting to mass production.

Yes, in USA it is catching up. Sales volume of industrial grade 3-D printers is already slightly more than one-third the volume of industrial automation and robotic sales and experts predict this ratio will cross 40% by 2020. Pace of switch over will increase with the expansion of range of printable materials. Earlier the list of materials was short and was restricted to basic plastics and photosensitive resins and now the list has become longer with the inclusion of ceramics, cement, glass, numerous metals and metal alloys.

Whether 3-D printing technology in construction can disrupt architecture and civil engineering profession? Many in the industry said ‘no’. “Can a chemist replace a doctor or a specialist? Similarly, 3-D printing technology cannot disrupt our profession,” says Samir Chauhan, a Civil Engineering Consultant. “Yes, initially it may have some impact on the profession but not as much to  endanger its existence itself,” he said.

“Now also construction industry is highly automated in other parts of the world whereas in India it is hardly 10%. In developed countries robotics are used from brick making to brick laying. While this is not the case in India because availability of cheap labour. Also, in case of automation initial investment will be huge whereas in case of labour oriented process operational cost will be comparatively higher. Same rule will aply to 3-D printing too,” says a civil engineer of North India based realty company. But the complacency may be the industry’s undoing. In USA, in less than two years the entire hearing aid industry switched over to additive manufacturing. However, it is too early to believe that the additive manufacturing has universal application. In some of the industries like defense, auto components and pharmaceutical equipment it is found to be superior to conventional methods.

3-D printing (in buildings) presents lot of benefits for the final consumer. 3-D printing helps you to create the exact virtual representation of the structure. It will also help the architects, developers and engineers to come up with new and innovative ways to create modern structures. It is also useful in case of reconstruction after the destruction caused by natural calamities like earthquake and tsunamis. Just like prefabricated structures, 3-D printing too allows designing and printing of the structure elsewhere and its assembly at the location required. 3-D printing can do it much faster and better than prefab technology.

3-D printing technology can challenge not just architecture and construction profession but can equally be disruptive in other fields too. For example, companies like GE (jet engines, medical devices, and home appliance parts), Lockheed Martin and Boeing (aerospace and defense) and Google  (consumer electronics) are already using 3-D printing to ramp up production. When it goes full mainstream it may become second industrial revolution rendering many current practices and processes useless and unnecessary. Many may join the list of dinosaur as laggards get attracted by superior economics of 3-D printing.

Revolution always disrupts the existing equilibrium but at the same time throws up new opportunities too. Architecture profession should be on its toes to grab this opportunity to come out unharmed by the disruption. 3-D printing may eventually lead to emergence of new breed of professionals – digital construction professionals. Indeed, architects and civil engineers will be better equipped to assume that role but it will depend upon the former’s adaptability to new rules and technologies.