3D printing in construction: is it worth the hype?

Posted on: 10 April, 2024

Many predict 3D printing could help revolutionise the way we approach construction in the built environment, but how much truth is there to this claim?

With nations around the world simultaneously trying to tackle the cost of living and climate crisis, is it any wonder many are evolving their business models to find more innovative and cost-effective solutions?

One such solution that has experienced unprecedented growth over the last decade is 3D printing technology. In fact, the UK 3D Printing market is estimated to be £0.52 billion in 2024, and is expected to reach £0.91 billion by 2029.

This technology has already revolutionised many industries, making it quicker and easier to produce complex designs and products. In particular, industries like automotive, manufacturing, supply chain and construction have begun to embrace the possibilities of 3D printing. This ability to create complex structures has now seen 3D printing increasingly making its way into the built environment.

But while it’s clear that there are several key benefits when using these machines, there are also some key challenges and criticism coming from those in the construction industry.

This poses the question – is 3D printing in construction really worth the hype?

How construction is using 3D printing

There are several core applications of 3D printing in construction and some are more popular than others. There are also different types of printing currently being used, including robotic arm extruders, sand layers and gantry systems.

3D printing has become a popular method for creating architectural models and prototypes. It can also be used to produce construction components and materials like modular panels and bricks.

Learn more: Modular construction 101: here’s how it’s making buildings sustainable

In the right circumstances, 3D printers can be used to create entire buildings and small structures, including printed buildings, micro homes, bridges and staircases.

It was estimated that at the end of 2022, there were around 129 3D-printed buildings globally found on 105 building sites.

Other applications for 3D printing

Another way this technique is being used is for 3D printing concrete and the market was projected to be worth around $56.4 million in 2021.

3D printing is also being tested in vertical elements and other features like facades or ceiling embellishments. And when combined with other technologies such as welding, these printers can produce entire structures, such as bridges.

7 key benefits of 3D printing in construction

3D printing in construction is still a new concept but one that’s already showing great promise. Based on a combination of research, prototypes and existing projects, several key benefits have been identified.

1. Rapid production

As 3D printers can begin producing construction components within a matter of hours, this can accelerate the manufacturing and building process. As a result, each stage of the design and production process can be made quicker and cheaper.

2. Minimising downtime

These printers can be automated, which means they can work through nights, weekends and even in bad weather, which isn’t always the case for humans. This can minimise downtime and increase output.

Plus, these machines reduce the need for manual involvement and work, which can be more cost-effective and convenient.

3. Reducing material waste

The built environment is responsible for a third of the world’s waste and every year around 100 billion tonnes of materials are extracted and used in the buildings and construction sector.

However, 3D printing will only use the materials and exact quantities needed for each element, resulting in little to no material waste. Making it more budget and eco-friendlier.

4. Using recycled materials

Another way that 3D printing can be more sustainable and better for the planet is the use of recycled materials.

As these printers typically create lattice patterns, materials like recycled plastic can form the basis of these structures. Recycled concrete and other recycled materials can also be used in the 3D printing process.

5. Finding innovative solutions

As 3D printing can produce more complex designs, it can create custom solutions. This means that those in the industry can move away from traditional construction methods and find innovative new ways to design and make buildings and other key structures.

This makes it possible to print more unconventional shapes and to produce structures that are not only unique, but can better meet the needs of the inhabitants, too. Giving designers and architects more freedom to be creative.

6. Reducing the risk of human error

As the printers are doing a lot of the work, this technology can significantly decrease the risk and occurrence of human error during the construction process. Not only reducing delays, but also loss of money and resources through mistakes.

7. A more cost-effective solution in the long-term

Finally, the ability to have multiple machines, produce materials quickly, reduce downtime and cut material waste means that these solutions can be far more cost-effective in the long term, leading to an impressive return on investment (ROI).

The criticism of 3D printing in construction

As with all new technologies that are set to revolutionise the sector, 3D printing in the construction industry has received some criticism. While it may have enormous potential, there are a few key reasons that industry experts are reluctant to abandon traditional construction methods just yet.

Complex (and pricey) equipment

For one thing, this type of innovation requires complex equipment. While the technology may already have been developed, this will need to be scaled up and simplified to keep up with growing demand on an industrial scale.

It also requires skilled workers and construction professionals who can produce, maintain and operate these machines, which could exacerbate the ongoing skills gap within the construction industry.

This complex equipment also comes at a very high price and initial investments will be expensive, even when renting a 3D printer. Ongoing expenses for materials and maintenance will also need to be factored into the budget of every project.

Logistics and integration with existing structures

Another criticism of 3D printing technology is the logistics of transporting these large machines to work sites . Otherwise, materials may have to be produced elsewhere and transported to the site. Either way, this can increase the cost of supplies or prove to be a logistical challenge.

Not only that, but many question how these elements can be integrated with other, existing building components. Would 3D-printed structures have to be a separate entity altogether? Would existing structures need to be removed and replaced?

All of this needs to be considered in the initial planning and design phases.

The unattractive nature of systemised construction

Lastly, systemised construction, panelisation and prefabrication have often been criticised, particularly in the UK, as the structures produced have been deemed ‘ugly’ and monotonous.

Although there seems to be a small resurgence of interest in this type of building, it’s very low and 3D-printed elements will very much fall under this category.

So while this may be a potential solution to the growing population and housing crisis, many still believe that these structures need to look good to produce happy, healthy and appealing neighbourhoods.

What challenges are ahead for 3D printed construction?

It’s not just these criticisms that spell trouble for 3D-printed construction. There are several key challenges ahead before this type of manufacturing and building can become more commonplace. As well as high investment costs, construction professionals may also have to contend with:

Labour shortages

The construction industry is already battling a shortage of skilled workers and as we’ve said, 3D printing demands a very specialised skillset. This could require a lot of retraining and reskilling of those in the industry. This is likely to cause problems for the foreseeable future.

Learn more: Diagnosing the green skills gap: what skills is the built environment missing?

Issues with quality control

Quality control within construction is already a tricky issue and as this is a relatively new technique, the quality of these elements and structures is still not completely known.

But even when using 3D construction printers, these strict standards must be met.

This will require human intervention and the continuous monitoring of machines, materials and everything being produced by these printers. Not only does this require human input, but if something goes wrong or standards are not being met, it could end up being an expensive mess.

Rules and regulations

Again, as this is a relatively new concept, there aren’t strong rules and regulations around these building practices and the products they produce.

Until there is, this could lead to some legal grey areas and lots of construction companies will remain reluctant to use these methods until laws and regulations around the 3D printing method are clearly defined. This could take years of drafting legislation, testing and feedback to implement.

What’s the verdict – Is 3D printing worth the hype?

Taking all of the above into consideration, does 3D printing in construction have real staying power? Is it going to revolutionise the construction industry or is there just too much uncertainty?

The applications of these machines can’t be ignored. From finding more cost-effective solutions to the housing crisis to creating sustainable, innovative buildings, we can’t deny that there are benefits to this type of construction.

However, there are some big challenges facing the industry and 3D construction printing comes with a wave of uncertainty. Ongoing skills shortages, coupled with the lack of regulations and high investment costs all stand in the way of seamless integration into the industry.

That being said, introducing 3D printing into the construction process has enormous potential, and in the long term, it could produce better, faster and lower-cost buildings. As such, it’s vital that professionals operating within the built environment stay up to date with the latest news and trends in this sector.

Architectural technologists are the digital experts that bridge the gap between an aesthetic vision and a practical reality. If you want to be at the forefront of the built environment’s digital future, UCEM’s BSc (Hons) Architectural Design Technology will give you the technical expertise and literacy you need to become a valuable contributor to the sector.

Find out more: BSc (Hons) Architectural Design Technology – University College of Estate Management