Ever since it became possible to structure buildings simply using computer software and a giant printer, the construction industry has been slowly turning on its head.
Just last year, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President and Prime Minister, Ruler of Dubai, laid out details of an ambitious plan for the emirate’s 3D printing strategy. It included a mandate for 25% of all of Dubai’s buildings to be 3D printed as part of their construction by 2030. However, the technology won't just be used for improving architecture. What really separates 3D printing from traditional construction is the pace and low-cost nature of the process, which means the technology can also provide social solutions.
Can you even print a building?
Printing in 3D is a simplistic, cost-effective and efficient way of creating objects, including buildings, by designing them beforehand, layer-by-layer using specialised software, before uploading the blueprints to a printer to be built. The process is already in use across Dubai and has already contributed to the building of the world’s first 3D printed office.
However, the technology won't just be used for improving architecture. The relatively fast-paced and low-cost nature of the 3D printing process means the technology could solve social problems such as helping to develop affordable housing for all and regenerative homes for war-torn communities.
"Areas where the population has been impacted by severe weather patterns or ravaged by conflicts are the reference theatre for the deployment of 3D printed building," says Federico Mariscotti, vice president at global management consulting firm A.T. Kearney. "It is already scalable to the point of building a small house within a day using equipment that can be transported on the back of a pick-up truck."
3D printing can change Dubai’s construction industry
With Dubai's construction industry accounting for 11% of the emirate’s GDP, the impact of 3D printing on the sector will be significant. Nic Jacobs, head of business systems and technology, Middle East & Africa at project management firm Faithful + Gould says 3D printing, like any other automation, will introduce a change in the nature of the industry, and in every aspect of the supply chain.
“Automation may result in a smaller manual labour force at the actual location of construction, but perhaps an increase in labour force to transform raw materials and transport from point of extraction to the construction site,” Jacobs explained.
He added that automation will also have an impact on regional socioeconomics. “This is a fascinating subject and we are interested in how this will develop over the next few years. Dubai has a large construction sector that provides work to several thousands of expats from all over the world. Changing the nature of the construction delivery process will result in a shift of resources, with a direct impact on the country's economy.”
Opportunities abound for 3D printing to shine
In the case of Dubai, Jacobs said authorities are continuously looking at ways to introduce new technology. “We are very fortunate that there are numerous opportunities for the industry to meet with technology partners for thought leadership discussions. What’s more, in terms of infrastructure, Dubai has some of the world's best ports, allowing the import of printed building components from countries with availability of natural resources and labour.”
Plans are now in the pipeline for the world’s first 3D printed skyscraper. As a wider city, Dubai is set to be a world leader for showcasing 3D printing construction techniques. “The city is unique in this way,” says Mariscotti. “It has no notion of the impossible and has a resident population contributing expectations and interpretations from all cultures.”