Training the key to future success of 3D printing in construction

Rich McEachran

The TECLA project shows what's possible to achieve with rudimentary materials and natural sources (Credit: Wasp)
The TECLA project shows what's possible to achieve with rudimentary materials and natural sources (Credit: Wasp)

Domes made from clay, which look like a cross between terracotta pots and something termites might have built, are probably not something you’d associate with the future of construction. But in Massa Lombarda, near Ravenna in northern Italy, 3D-printer manufacturer Wasp has demonstrated exactly why they could be.

An 18-month long collaboration with the architectural studio Mario Cucinella Architects, known as TECLA, saw a large printer connected to a crane, nozzle and pump. Earth collected from nearby was fed through the system and deposited precisely according to a programmed pattern. 

According to Mario Cucinella, the resulting mud houses can be printed in just 200 hours and, in theory, anyone with access to the technology could extract soil from nearby ground and print their own home. It sounds pretty straightforward. But there will be stumbling blocks if the technology is going to be deployed commercially – namely building and construction site regulations.

Nonetheless, the TECLA project shows what’s possible to achieve with rudimentary materials and natural sources. For example, printing homes on demand in places with lack of access to other materials or in countries with poor infrastructure or a weak construction industry could be truly transformative.

Overcoming stumbling blocks

3D printing in the construction world has been hyped up a lot over the past decade, but gradually it bit the dust and the hype has died with it. There are a couple of reasons why it has struggled to take off. One is the aforementioned regulatory constraints, and second is that construction is notorious for being one of the least digitised industries and this has limited the uptake of 3D-printing technology. 

Traditional ways of building are laborious and errors can creep in which can lead to structural issues. But with 3D printing it’s possible to print complex and intricate atypical design structures (including honeycombs and lattices), which can allow for greater structural integrity. Studies have shown that when reinforced with very short steel fibres (roughly 6mm) printed concrete is more durable than standard mixes. On top of this, using computer programming and robots to automate the pouring process enhances accuracy. It can also reduce production costs and the amount of material wasted. 

But there’s still some way to go. That’s according to Aslam Hossain, a senior lecturer in engineering at Monash University in Malaysia, who authored a review of 3D printing in construction and the impact on the labour market, published last October. In it he argued that additive technologies in their current state are better suited for printing concrete for houses and villas rather than for large structures. 

The reason, wrote Hossain, is because 3D printing has shortcomings. Not only is there the logistical challenge of assembling a 3D-printed high-rise building, but the challenge of “low level of customisation, and the complexity involved in the information processing from design to tangible object”.

Upskilling the next generation of industry employees will be critical for understanding and managing these complexities. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology argued for upskilling in the industry in their Work of the Future paper on additive manufacturing published last November. 

For engineers, job roles will change. Hossain stressed that 3D printing will “reduce the number of architects, engineers and constructors needed to design and plan a project”. Engineers will, however, be expected “to be digitally savvy, able to perform advanced computational analysis in the design process, and design verification of the structure”. 

The knowledge

In the future, engineers will require knowledge of how the choice of material affects mechanical properties and how printed parts should be arranged to improve durability and efficiency. 

Upskilling and training engineers to drive digital transformation in construction will lead to greater adoption of 3D printing. And broader awareness of additive manufacturing will lead to industry-wide 3D-printing standards that will help to deliver a higher quality of buildings.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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