February 3, 2021 Last updated February 3rd, 2021 1,743 Reads share

Impact of 3D Printing In Construction, Logistics, And Supply Chain

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Behrokh Khoshnevis, Professor, University of Southern California, creator of Contour Crafting. He is one of the first pioneers to introduce 3D printing technology in scaled applications in civil engineering. In a Ted Talk he gave in 2012, he said-

“If you look around yourself, pretty much everything is made automatically today—your shoes, your clothes, home appliances, your car…. The only thing that is still built by hand are these buildings.”

And later:

“Construction, as we know it today, is wasteful, costly, and often over budget.”

But with the latest advances in 3D printing technology, the application areas has grown to a wide range that from medical device companies to construction companies took a liking for it.

If you don’t know already, 3D printing systems that are developed for the construction industry are referred to as ‘construction 3D printers’. And like other 3D printers, a construction 3D printer deposits a material (concrete for example) layer by layer to produce construction components or even entire buildings.

So what good does 3D printing bring to construction?

Well, for starters, it builds the houses to a tee. It not only allows faster and precise construction of complex items but also lowers labor costs. And since it uses the exact amount of the material needed, a lot of production costs on material waste is also saved. Besides less material usage, fewer people required to work on construction is again cost-effective to the industry.

3D Printing in the construction industry has greatly reduced production time which again saves production costs. The machines are very fast, some of them even capable of manufacturing 600 to 800-square-foot (55 to 75-square-meter) homes in just 24 hours and needless to say has better durability. Outstanding, right?

It might also enable construction to be undertaken in harsh or dangerous environments not suitable for a human workforce like Rebuilding whole cities after a natural disaster. Hence reducing the risk of injury.

And not only that, but they are also capable of using recycled materials. This factor has a huge benefit on the environment. Who knew being eco-friendly and saving money at the same time could be just a technology away?

But as we know, nothing worthwhile ever comes easy. Clearly, with all these advantages, construction 3D printers have enormous potential. But with the following challenges at hand, there are still raised eyebrows about how 3D printing can be incorporated into the construction.

1. Printer Technology and Economics

In our research, we found out that a mainstream onsite concrete printer costs about $500,000 to $2,000,000, though prices should fall in the near future.

Plus, these printers are designed to work at less than 33 feet (10 meters) in height, and with a throughput of fewer than 550 pounds (250 kilograms) per hour. This means it is limited to printing fairly small buildings. For larger-scale buildings, such as multi-story office blocks or large-surface-area malls, a far more ambitious machine would be needed.

Some startups are addressing these issues of cost and scale by experimenting with a different approach—deploying mobile, multi-axis industrial robots with a mounted printing nozzle. A used robot of this kind can cost $50,000 or less.

2. Printing Process and Materials

Given the sultry weather on a typical construction site, it is not easy to accurately control the cooling or setting of materials, and hence to guarantee structural stability. The automatic adjustment has proved challenging, and in-line quality control remains far from perfect.

More complex outputs; walls of reinforced concrete, for example, or walls with printed piping and wiring inside are difficult to master. The finishing and resolution of printed structures represent further challenges.

the most promising solution here is to supplement the additive process with a traditional subtractive process, such as surface milling.

3. Design and Engineering

Most architects and designers have yet to take advantage of their new creative freedom, and many are resistant to doing so. Tradition-bound as it still is, the construction industry is not ready to adjust to the very non-traditional concept of design for additive manufacturing.

Even when architects and designers do produce excitingly innovative designs, that is not the end of the story. The blueprint has to be translated into a realized structure—a task that many construction engineers still struggle to complete.

As professional education modernizes, however, and as a new generation of professionals takes over, the non-traditional method should overpower the traditional ones.

4. Regulation, Procurement Rules, and Client Skepticism

The adoption of 3D printing in construction has been hampered by bureaucratic factors: slow incorporation into building codes, the imposition of arbitrary prescriptive standards rather than performance-based standards, and wide regional variation in regulations. In many regions, building codes make no provision at all for 3D-printed construction techniques, materials, and testing.

Meanwhile, many prospective clients and tenants are under-informed or unconvinced about the safety and durability of 3D-printed buildings.

Well keeping these challenges aside, the 3D printing and construction industry are the two pieces of a puzzle that fit perfectly.

Some entities i.e. some well-established companies have collaborated with 3D printing incorporated startups like Apis cor, Construction 3D, Contour crafting, CyBe Construction, Dshape, FreeFab, Mx3D, Winsun, XtreeE, etc are honing the rough edges of 3D printing so as to put the two pieces together.

Foster+Partner, DUS Architects in Architecture and Design have been creating 3D designs, designs for AM, and planning future online platforms to customize building design. Gensler and Arup in Engineering are ensuring the constructability of designs using new model methods. In supply, companies are working on 3D printing equipment for offsite and onsite printing, while, Air Liquide, DuPont, and LafargeHolcim are working on specialty materials for printing and Autodesk is providing software for generative design or for transforming 3D models into printable models or for load testing.

Whereas, If we talk about construction, Acciona, Bouygues, BAM infra, Laing O’Rourke, Skanska, Vinci are producing and assembling assets while others are focussing on repairs, remodeling, and printing of spare parts.

3D printing presents promising opportunities for the construction industry to become both greener and more cost-effective, often by considerable margins. As 3D printing research continues to develop, it will be exciting to see the benefits the technology will have on the many facets of the construction industry.

In the following points, we will observe 3D Printing’s impact on the supply chain.

  1. Decentralize production – The mobile nature of the technology will enable businesses to take production to local markets or customers faster. As a result, we will see a drift from mass production in low-cost countries towards more local assembly hubs. Rather than relying on imports, companies will have the capability to produce components closer to home. This is especially important during times of geopolitical tension, like a trade war, when the cost of purchasing components globally can increase rapidly.
  2. Drive product customization – As 3D printing is a tool-less technology, it gives manufacturers unprecedented freedom to offer tailor-made products to the clients and enhance the customer experience. This will result in more supple supply chains which can rapidly attune to changes in the market. Eventually, we could see the design, production, and distribution merge into one supply chain function with much client involvement in the entire design and production process.
  3. Reduce complexity and improve time-to-market – 3D printing technology integrates the number of components and processes required for manufacturing. This significantly impacts the global supply chains, decreasing complexities, saving on production costs, enhancing lead times, and improving time-to-market.
  4. Improve resource efficiency – 3D printing is a ‘greener,’ more energy-efficient, and cost-efficient production method. It creates almost zero waste, lowers the risk of overproduction and excess inventory, and reduces the carbon footprint. It implies a pull system and takes ‘Just-in-Time’ manufacturing to a new level.
  5. Rationalize inventory and logistics – As ‘on-demand’ production becomes the norm, the need to transport physical goods across countries and continents reduces. Combined with the lower number of SKUs required for production, this majorly impacts the warehousing and logistics and has the potential to overcome tariffs.

Some of the companies integrating 3D Printing in the supply chain are as follows-

  1. Kazzata a startup has implemented the idea of digital inventory that aims to establish a CAD repository for obsolete and rare parts. When a part is required users can simply search for the right part and send the file to the nearest 3D printing store.
  2. Amazon may take on-demand manufacturing a step further. The tech behemoth has filed patent applications for delivery trucks that can 3D print goods while in transit. All items would be printed on demand thus eliminating the need and maintenance of an inventory.

Since 3D printing will significantly increase last-mile delivery, it does have the potential to alter the current logistics landscape; with an amplified role played by postal service providers who specialize in last-mile deliveries; especially to remote areas.

Following are the active players in the space-

  1. Through a partnership with Sculpteo, La Poste offers 3D printers in six post offices where customers can get prints of their custom designs with the help of a consultant or choose from a selection of designs that are already available.  It also partnered with UCKi to offer a service that turns children’s drawings into jewelry. Finally, it partnered with CRITES to create customized packaging for fragile or unusually-shaped items through 3D scanning.
  2. Royal Mail ran a successful trial with iMakr to provide a 3D printer at a post office in London. Customers could create their own designs or choose an existing one from the design catalog. Although the post office in London doesn’t have a 3D printer onsite anymore, Royal mill offers an online catalog for the customers to order various gifts and other items.

The current activity of postal services (La Poste, Royal Mill, Swiss post, Singapore post) clearly reflects their interest in 3D printing. Existing approaches to manufacturing may be turned upside down. 3DP could promote highly decentralized manufacturing, with low or no inventory and short supply chains.


3D printing (3DP) being a novel technology is considered a part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In the article above we discussed how it has the potential to make significant and rapid changes to the way products are manufactured and distributed.

To stay ahead, business leaders and policy-makers need to understand the technology and its implications to develop forward-looking strategies and policies for their businesses and stakeholders. And since 3D printing is yet in the evolving phase we’ll be tracking the advancements that businesses try to employ in the technology.

3D printer -DepositPhotos

Vipin Singh

Vipin Singh

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