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A History of 3D Printing in Construction & What You Need to Know

From plastic models on an architectural design table to habitable colonies on Mars, here’s what you’ve been dying to know about the history—and future— 3D printing in construction. Prepare to be blown away by this potentially revolutionary construction technology.

Scale Models: The Humble Beginnings (1986-2000)

In 1984, Charles "Chuck" Hull invented stereolithography (SLA), a method of 3D printing where designers create a 3D model that is then printed layer by layer into a solid, physical object. The SLA process involves pointing a UV laser at liquid photopolymer which makes it solid.

The 3D printers most commonly used in the consumer sector are SLA printers, from companies like MakerBot and others. It was clear that this technique could have applications in manufacturing and beyond, so Chuck promptly took out some patents and founded 3D Systems, a 3D printing company that is still alive and well today.

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An early "homemade" 3D printer prototype.

One of the earliest uses for 3D printing was to print tabletop scale models for architecture firms. These models, in pre-BIM days, helped in the design process, and were valuable tools for both selling and planning building projects. 3D printing was a much cheaper way to erect these scaled-down models, compared to the time-intensive, hand-crafted replicas that had been the norm previously.

The advent of 3D and 4D Building Information Modeling (BIM) largely made the creation of physical models unnecessary, but many firms do still enjoy showing their work off this way.

By the 1990s, several organizations began experimenting with using 3D printing to produce modular components of full-scale projects. By the 2000s, these applications were in full swing and getting set to transform the entire industry.


Full-Scale Practical Applications: Where We Are Now (2000-2016)

In just the past few years, 3D printing capabilities have grown by leaps and bounds, enabling some practical applications that were unthinkable even fifteen years ago. For instance:

This Technology: 2006

In 2006, Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis of the University of Southern California unveiled the Contour Crafting System, an enormous 3D printer designed to literally print buildings in place. It works like a desktop 3D printer, but uses a crane to do the printing, and concrete as the medium, to lay down a building’s structural elements. 

 A 3D printing system developed by the Massachussetts Institute of Technology uses a large, highly controllable robotic arm to spray materials like concrete via any conventional construction nozzle.

This Plastic Canal House: 2014

In 2014, a Dutch firm (DUS Architect) set out to demonstrate the potential for 3D printed architecture, by building a canal house out of 3D printed plastic in Amsterdam. The project uses a giant crane-like printing arm called the “Kamermaker,” which literally means, “Room Builder.” This project is ongoing.

 3D print canal house in Amsterdam.

This Steel Bridge: 2015

In 2015, the Dutch 3D Printing firm MX3D began printing a full-scale steel bridge, to be installed in downtown Amsterdam. When complete, the bridge will be fully functional. It is a proof of concept piece for the MX3D technology, which aims to make steel construction more cost efficient and faster. 

 MX3D is 3D printing a bridge across a canal in Amsterdam, with the support of partners including Autodesk.

This Off-Grid Dwelling: 2016

In January 2016, architecture firm SOM announced a partnership with the US Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory to produce highly efficient dwelling structures consisting of a 3D printed pod and a combination of renewable solar and natural gas energy systems. While the structures are not yet on the market, they promise to provide a cost-effective means of providing shelter in formerly inaccessible and remote locations, as well as sustainable long-term shelter for disaster relief.

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The 3D printed shelter includes rooftop solar panels and an integrated battery system to power the dwelling day and night, and it comes with a companion vehicle that also generates its own power.

This Entire Concrete Mansion: 2016

In June 2016, Chinese company HuaShang Tenda announced that it had constructed an entire concrete mansion in 45 days. The company erected the building’s frame first, placing plumbing and electrical wiring, and then printed the structure using 20 tons of inexpensive concrete and a computer-controlled printer. The two-story, 4,305 square foot dwelling claims to be earthquake-proof and environmentally friendly.

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And These Ten Houses in 24 Hours: 2016

In April 2016, another Chinese company claimed to have printed 10 houses in 24 hours. The walls are constructed from a mix of recycled construction material and cement, and the makers claim the homes are both cheaper and more environmentally friendly than traditional construction. The company also built its own office entirely out of 3D printed modules. 

Near Future Applications: Where We’re Going Soon (2017-2020)

Disaster Shelter Applications

The speed and cost-effectiveness of 3D printed buildings makes them an attractive option for disaster relief, where many individuals and families are in need of fast, safe shelter. The inventors at DUS Architects in Amsterdam envision their technology being used for the purpose, while other companies are inventing technologies that will use local materials including dirt, mud, and sand as the base for construction, making it even easier and cheaper to construct in place.

Buildings Complete With Systems

The makers of the Contour Crafting system claim that they will eventually be able to build an entire home, including its plumbing, electrical, and other systems, from the ground up. The ability of 3D printing to handle multiple materials—concrete, metal, and plastic—makes this possibility not as far-fetched as one might think.

Speculative Future Applications: The Wild, Wild Not-So-Distant Future (2050 Maybe)

Colonies on the Moon

One of the major barriers to colonizing the moon (aside from that little thing about there being no atmosphere), is the cost of transporting materials and the difficulty of getting work crews on site. 3D printing with native materials and computer-controlled robots could eliminate both of these barriers, by putting structures and even environmental systems in place in readiness for human habitation.

NASA is supporting a feasibility study designed to determine whether a colony of settlers is now possible. Imagine an entire moon city, made from moon dust and rock and ready for us to inhabit before we even arrive!

Living, 3D Printed, Buildings

Okay, still with us? Brace yourselves. This one made our jaws drop. What if your home were capable of perfectly ventilating, cooling, warming, cleaning, and repairing itself? What if it did all those things not through the use of computer-controlled systems, but because it was actually… alive.

That’s the most advanced application for 3D printing we've found so far --  3D print using living cells as the material. Organisms, the logic goes, are highly efficient at maintaining internal temperatures, staying clean, modulating moisture and humidity, and repairing themselves. While traditional construction methods sometimes use once-living materials (wood, for instance), the capabilities of the living cells themselves are destroyed in the process.

But what if you could maintain the integrity of the living cells, even as you print them into the structural shape desired? The result could be a living, breathing structure that literally maintains itself.

Although it sounds like weird science fiction, this is a project that is in fact under development by the US Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), via their Engineered Living Materials (ELM) program.

It's a (3D Printed) Wrap!

3D printing in construction has powerful potential. These projects are excellent proofs of concept across the board, and great solutions for quickly creating buildings or parts for specific purposes, but most mechanical engineers would agree 3D printing still has a ways to go in order to be relied upon for most building construction. So don't throw away your cranes or your tools just yet!  We can't wait to see what innovations the next few years will bring.