How 3D Printing Technology Changes the Need for Travel
For decades, humans experienced a need for travel to transfer any matter from location A to location B. Whether it was a written letter or the construction of the Tower Bridge, everything had to be physically transported because there was no alternative. The introduction of the internet enabled us to share matter without any physical exercise. With the push of a button, I can send a message to my friend from university in Russia and the second after I can have a videocall with a professor from Stanford. Just a few decades ago, such means of communication were unimaginable. The commercial application of internet disrupted multiple industries and significantly decreased the need to travel1. Especially the consequences of the current COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how the internet can act as a substitute for travel. However, some industries are still unable to capitalize on the opportunity to capture value from the internet as a substitute for travel. But this is about to change in the near future.
Currently, there is a new, breakthrough innovation on the rise with the potential to be disruptive in multiple industries: three-dimensional printing (3DP)2. Implementation of 3DP, in literature also referred to as additive manufacturing, has a lot of unforeseen future applications. Current developments range from printing human organs to large structures like skyscrapers and bridges3. The construction industry is a mature industry which still relies on traditional, labour-intensive and costly production mechanisms4. There is an increasing need for automation and increased efficiency due to health issues with an aging workforce, shortages in skilled staff5, and the current COVID-19 pandemic; which caused a lot of construction projects to be delayed6. When one is not allowed to travel, how is one going to build a bridge for cyclists? Even if you’re able to have all construction workers in place, with safe distancing in mind, it is still impossible to have the required materials in place due to global travel restrictions.
The implementation of 3DP in construction could play a vital role in solving current challenges within the industry. It offers great advantages such as customizability and reduction in material costs. Moreover, it minimizes the need for the transportation of raw materials. The concept is fairly simple: place a 3D printer at the location where one wants to print, send a 3D model of the desired structure to the printer, and provide the printer with the required raw materials (e.g. mortar) and just start printing. Of course, we’re not there yet. There are quite some challenges in terms of technical development, cost-effectiveness, & economic feasibility7 and we won’t be printing entire neighbourhoods anytime soon. However, it is likely that these challenges will be solved over time as development of 3DP for construction is accelerating and for some type of construction projects it can already be economically feasible.
Due to the global pandemic, complex construction projects are affected the most. For example, constructing a skyscraper in the middle of Manhattan8. Traditionally, complex projects are highly labour intensive and require specific prefabricated raw material: impossible delivery during the pandemic. However, utilizing a 3D printer could solve all challenges. It would be able to print on itself and continuously continue building. Without any delay or harm in the city. It would only need one engineer to do the required checks and the printer would do all the work. No traffic jams because there is no need to continuously transport matter to the site. Again, it is still a long-shot. But we’re getting there and we’re getting there fast. It is a matter of time until the first start-ups develop feasible solutions to print their structures on-site. Once raw materials are further developed and economies of scale are achieved, it’ll be more effective to utilize additive manufacturing since there is a reduction in transportation of goods, labour intensity and, wasted materials. Referring to the theme of this article; 3D printing will significantly impact mobility since there is no necessity for a convoy of trucks that provide transportation and huge traffic jams in the middle of a city centre; just a printer that does the job.
One of the most famous examples is the start-up MX3D from Amsterdam. They have built a printer that is able to print steel and they have already constructed a bridge for cyclists9. It is obvious that labour-free, autonomous construction in any shape one desires, provides an incredible opportunity for the construction industry. However, industry leaders tend to neglect the technology and the associated, required investment10. Small start-ups are capitalizing on the opportunity while mature industry incumbents don’t make the required investment.
Dear industry leaders, invest into additive manufacturing. It will mitigate the risk of disruption11, enable you to capture value from the opportunity, and provides a more sustainable construction process.
1 Wang, D., & Law, F. Y. T. (2007). Impacts of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) on time use and travel behavior: a structural equations analysis. Transportation, 34(4), 513-527.
2 Campbell, T., Williams, C., Ivanova, O., Garrett, B. (2011) Could 3D printing change the world, technologies, potential, and implications of additive manufacturing. Atlantic Council, strategic foresight: 1-13.
3Venekamp, N., & Le Fever, H. (2015). Application areas of additive manufacturing : From curiosity to application. Ieee Technology and Society Magazine, Vol. 34(3): 81-87.
4Kothman, I., & Faber, N. (2016). How 3D printing technology changes the rules of the game: Insights from the construction sector. Journal of Manufacturing Technology Management, 27(7): 932–943.
5Buswell, R. A., Leal de Silva W. R., Jones, S. Z., Dirrenberger, J. (2018) 3D printing using concrete extrusion: a roadmap for research, Cement and concrete research, Vol. 112: 37-49.
6Alenezi, T. A. N. (2020). Covid-19 Causes Of Delays On Construction Projects In Kuwait.
7Post, H. (2019) Interview with NU.nl. Retrieved from: https://www.nu.nl/260603/video/eerste-3d-productielocatie-open-we-gaan-huizen-bouwen.html?redirect=1.
9MX3D. (2018) MX3D Bridge project, retrieved from: https://mx3d.com/projects/bridge-2/.
10Laubier, R., Wunder, M., Witthöft, S., & Rothballer, C. (2018) Will 3D printing remodel the construction industry?, The Boston Consultancy Group.
11Christensen, C.M, Raynor, M.E. (2003) The innovator’s solution: creating and sustaining successful growth. HBS Press, Boston, Mass.