3D Printing in Construction – Building More than Buildings


Aya Bentur  

Domino Tower NY 3D Printed Molds for Pre Cast Concrete

We have seen a few 3D printed homes over the last years. The allure of 3D printing a full-scale home is understandable – a large robotic arm moving around, constructing a structure out of thin air, in a limited time frame, is undeniably impressive. But is that the best use of 3D printing in construction? Is it the “future of construction”? This week we take a look at the construction industry, where and how it can benefit from integrating 3D printing technology.

Go Big?

Additive manufacturing (AM) can answer many needs within the construction industry. As in many cases, it’s actually the un-seen applications that are the best use cases, taking advantage of what the technology has to offer. 3D printed whole structures such as the Gaia House in Italy, the Chicon house in Texas, and the house by Apis Core (below) in Russia are great case studies but they opt to disrupt an entire industry. Does the industry really need to be overturned in such a way? There are less disruptive and more beneficial ways to integrate AM into the construction industry. On top of that, on the technical side, using 3D printing as the main technology in the construction process can be limiting. The size of the structure depends on the machine or extrusion arm, the pattern created by the print process is very dominant, and outdoor conditions can influence the 3D printed result as well as require certain maintenance for the machine itself.

3D Printed House Apis Cor

Scale it Down

Prefabricated building elements, on the other hand, can benefit from the advantages without being tied to the restrictions mentioned above. Xtree-E’s large scale 3D printer demonstrates how large scale doesn’t have to mean the entire building, it can be parts that are printed on or off-site like the stormwater collector developed with Point P TP and la Sade (below). This element utilizes 3D printing to create a customized structure which wouldn’t make sense cost-wise to produce in a conventional factory.

Xtree-E 3D Printed Stormwater Collector


Two other examples of additively manufactured structural elements integrated into a building are the construction for vegetation and canopy by Branch Technology. The first is now part of the center hall at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History (below), and the second was built last year at the Erlanger Children’s Hospital in Tennessee (above). Both of these structures are commercially used today and are good examples of 3D printing in construction today.

Garden Installation 3D Printed by Branch Technology for Field Museum of Natural History Chicago - DetailGarden Installation 3D Printed by Branch Technology for Field Museum of Natural History Chicago

Breaking the Mold

I’m no construction expert but I can imagine 3D printing tooling can also be efficient in the construction industry. As a production process that is done on-site and according to a personalized set of plans, 3D printing the right tools can facilitate the process. Even something as simple as spacers and guides, and in more complex forms – molds. Molds are already used in construction but usually, they are wood constructions that need to be built on-site and aren’t meant for repeated use. Additively manufactured molds, on the other hand, can provide more true-to-design forms and the materials used can withstand repeated use. For example, additively manufactured molds were used to create precast concrete parts in the construction of the Domino Tower in Brooklyn, New York. In this case, ORNL collaborated with Gate Precast and PCI to develop the molds, which were produced by Additive Engineering Solutions (AES). The molds were made of carbon fiber reinforced ABS and used to cast almost 1,000 parts, each mold capable of 200 casts (up top). Another option for 3D printed molds in construction use is sand molds. While plastic molds (or wood) molds are usually used for concrete casting, sand molds are typically used for metal. Arup, 3D printed sand molds for the production of steel nodes made for construction, and at ETH Zurich, they have created a number of structures using 3D printed sand molds, such as the facade (below detail and casting process).

ETH Zurich Deep Facade 3D Printed Mold Cast Detail ETH Zurich Deep Facade 3D Printed Mold - Casting Process

When Past and Future Meet

3D Printed Modern Ornament EDG

Molds for construction can be used on a smaller scale for intricate details, specifically ideal for restoration purposes. Many stone and metal elements that are in need of restoration require craftsmanship that is very hard to come by these days and is quite expensive. This makes encouraging restoration over demolition harder. While 3D printing can’t replace the crafts of the past it can create modern replacements, or as EDG puts it – modern ornaments (above). The New York Architecture and engineering firm is committed to enabling restoration through the use of additively manufactured molds. Italian company Simsaitalia also used 3D printing to create replacements for the eroded elements of a 19th-century building at Palazzo Spada at Ferrara, and it was even suggested that 3D printing can take a role in the rebuilding of the Notre Dame. A different approach can be seen in Aectual, a company specializing in digitally produced building products. One of their products is a flooring system that is comprised of a 3D printed framework and a terrazzo infill. The result is a modern spin to traditional flooring, which can be customized in pattern and size (below detail and process).

3D Printed Floor by Aectual Robotic Arm 3D Printing Framework Floor by Aectual

When thinking of 3D printed construction we usually imagine full buildings, but look closer at any building around you, imagine how many parts and tools can and should be 3D printed in order to facilitate smart construction? The possibilities are almost endless.

What are your thoughts and impressions on how 3D printing should be utilized in the construction industry? For more inspiration and information follow us on Pinterest or subscribe to our newsletter for weekly updates.

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