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3D printing is poised to impact the way construction is carried out, especially as a viable alternative to methods used in affordable housing in the UAE. The technology is capable of creating 3D models from a digital version through computer aided design (CAD) or a 3D scanner. The printed layers can then be bound together to create a structure.
Jon Corish, Architect and Senior Associate at Gensler’s Abu Dhabi office who has been involved with 3D printing projects, elaborates on the benefits of the technology, as well as the opportunities in the UAE’s affordable housing segment.
* What does 3D-printing technology in construction involve?
3D-printed buildings are designed and constructed using the integrated project delivery approach. All stakeholders on the project, in cluding the client, authorities, design team and contractor work together to ensure that all requirements of the project are accounted for. Projects are designed using Building Information Modelling (BIM) software and this allows project teams to fully design in three dimensions, ensuring that all architecture, structure and engineering elements are coordinated. The synergistic approach to design also coordinates all project areas with fewer errors when the project is 3D printed.
Once the project is designed, the BIM model is converted into the 3D printers’ proprietary software for printing. The 3D printer is controlled by software that enables a 3D form to be created from layer upon layer of 2D printing of a concrete-like material referred to as “ink”. The ink is applied through a nozzle that is similar to a tube of decorative icing as it is applied to a cake.
* Can it bring down construction costs for affordable housing?
The size of the printer, the speed at which it prints and the minimal labour required to operate it make the process efficient. These translate into cost savings for materials, production and labour. The constituent parts of the 3D printer’s ink is a closely guarded secret, but we have been informed that it includes recycled building materials that not only reduces cost, but also reduces the demand on new building products. This provides a more green or sustainable approach to construction.
The printing itself incorporates financial benefits as it is an automated mechanical process that does not require moulds (like precast concrete) or formwork (like in-situ concrete) and the printer be can be operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week, if required. The biggest savings, however, may come from the reduced labour requirements on the job site — once printed elements are transported and lifted into place.
Traditionally, costs are also incurred in the rework of construction projects due to a lack of coordination and mistakes. A building that is designed through a process of integrated project delivery and procured using 3D printed technology decreases the need for alterations after installation. There is better quality control with the printed product as opposed to inherent human error that is associated with manual installation. As a result, there are associated time, cost and quality benefits afforded to 3D-printed projects. Similar benefits have been witnessed by the construction industry with respect modular prefabricated buildings.
* What are the challenges involved in using this technology for construction?
The biggest challenge is that there is no documented guidance to advise on usage, or international standards/ codes to safeguard end users. This technology is so new that it has yet to be classified as either a building system or a building product. Inevitably this puts designers and engineers under pressure to ensure 3D-printed products are tested and safe, and compliant with existing industry best practices.
As with any new technology, there is the inevitable research required, test-fail cycles, and a rollout/feed-back period. Presently the maximum size of 3D-printed elements is bound by the size of the printer. Further constraints are logistics and transportation: how far away is the 3D printer from the project site and how big are the 3D elements to be installed?
* What is the future of this technology in the UAE? As this technology is in its infancy there is an opti mistic future ahead of it, and especially in the UAE. China has been at the forefront of developing 3D-printing technology and has proved that 3D-printed buildings can be designed, delivered and are compliant with Chinese building codes. Effectively the beta testing for 3D printing has been completed.
We have recently been involved with what we term as Version 1.0 of this new technology. On day one of a recent project for an office building in the UAE, the 3D printing fabricator informed us that elements could only be printed vertically. We broke the rules that same day by proposing a solution that could be printed on its side and layered with structural reinforcement, so that when the unit is installed the module was not only printed vertically (walls), but horizontally (roof) too.
In furthering the abilities of what 3D printing can offer, we are currently challenging ourselves, and 3D fabricators, to what a Version 2.0 of a 3D-printed building might incorporate. We have already integrated structural elements within the 3D print, and we believe that the next evolution of the process should incorporate the engineering elements within the design. This would include ducts for air, conduits for electrical wiring, etc. 3D-printing technology can offer substantial benefits in the ability to deliver mass-produced housing solutions in affordable, mid-range and high-end market segments.
The possibility of delivering a 3D-printed housing community, similar to Al Raha Gardens in Abu Dhabi or The Springs in Dubai, is a very real option.
Source: Manika Dhama, Special to Property Weekly