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3D-Printed Buildings

October 11, 2015

Filed under: 3D printing,additive manufacturing — Terry Wohlers @ 06:55

Earlier this year, 3DPrint.com reported on Shanghai-based WinSun and its 3D printing of buildings. Stories of printing entire homes have been published in the past, although most have been met with disbelief. This one, however, includes many detailed images, suggesting that it might be real.

The video clip and pictures that accompany the story are compelling. They show the layer-by-layer construction of walls for a five-story apartment complex, as well as an upscale villa. The print material is said to be made from construction waste, including concrete, fiberglass, sand, and a special hardening agent—probably Portland cement and water. WinSun is manufacturing the walls off site and then assembling them at the location of the building construction.

winsun

I’m skeptical, not of the possibility of 3D printing walls, but of the idea and business model. The 3D-printed wall sections are replacing conventionally built ones, which are often concrete and steel, concrete block, wood, or steel. For decades, a highly established workforce has quickly and economically produced walls using these materials and conventional methods of construction. The labor, components, and materials required to complete the walls are the most time-consuming and expensive, by far. Consider the plumbing, electrical, and HVAC that must be installed, as well as the insulation, windows, doors, exterior covering (e.g., siding, brick, and stucco), and interior covering, such as sheetrock/drywall.

When considering the time and cost of constructing an entire building, the skeletal walls are a small part of the project. You also need floors, ceilings, roofs, stairs, and kitchen and bathroom fixtures. Consequently, I cannot see how the use of 3D printing technology could save any time or money. When you factor in the added cost of a very large, expensive, and not very portable 3D printer, the cost of these walls are likely far more expensive and time-consuming than conventional walls. The use of 3D printing may be good for marketing and attention, but that’s all.