How 3D printing could transform infrastructure

There’s been a lot of hype about 3D printing over the last few years, but the hype is now becoming reality. Construction is on the verge of serious disruption.

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3D printing is one of the most disruptive technologies operating in the world today. It’s a shame, then, that, in the minds of many, it remains a technology confined to the realm of trinkets and gimmicks – useful for independent crafters or, perhaps, producing simple medical equipment, but essentially distant from the grand-scale projects of infrastructure and engineering.  

In fact, 3D is rapidly expanding into any industry where physical components are involved, right up to large-scale engineering. Here, we discuss a few ways, beyond the obvious gains in speed and efficiency, in which 3D printing is starting to transform infrastructure. 

New materials and organically inspired structures

The days of 3D printers being limited to soft gels and plastics are long over. New printing technologies can handle a whole array of materials, including concrete, steel, ceramics, pottery and biological tissues. Even the latter can have implications for construction – some architects have looked to bone structures for ideas on how to develop futuristic new designs, such as the London-based Protohouse. 

3D printing can also help us build in whole new ways. For example, “honeycombed” materials contain thousands of tiny holes that allow incredibly strong materials to be made exceptionally light – think of substances stronger than steel but lighter than wood, and then think of the applications they could have in sectors such as aerospace.

3D printing can also produce shapes that traditional methods struggle to, such as those with non-developable surfaces – i.e., shapes that can’t be “flattened out,” such as spheroids or hyperbolic paraboloids. Being able to produce these kind of shapes in different ways opens up whole new worlds in architecture and engineering. 

Greater convenience

The core value of 3D printing lies in the fact that it can, in effect, transport physical products over huge distances in a similar way to how the internet transports digital products. Or, rather, it allows those communicating with each other remotely to transform digital information into physical products.

The implications for infrastructure development here are considerable, potentially eliminating complex and expensive physical supply chains altogether. With the right approach to 3D printing, all a construction site would theoretically need is a 3D printer and raw printing material. These raw materials for 3D printing are also far easier to transport to location than large, complicated parts – such as steel girders – that need to be assembled off-site and transported.

Being able to manage a much wider range of construction elements on-site means that construction projects can be undertaken in geographically remote areas. Take, for instance, a team trying to build a bridge over a high mountainous pass – the area may be completely inaccessible to trucks, and the components themselves may be cumbersome and difficult to get into position. 3D printing bypasses these problems almost entirely – all that is required is to get the printer and printing materials into position. 

Increasing autonomy

A third way in which 3D printing could radically transform infrastructure and engineering is by enabling machines to take over the actual act of building from humans.

If 3D printers can themselves be attached to robotic vehicles that scale structures as they construct them, it could allow structures to be built in areas which would otherwise have been unsafe or impractical for humans to operate.

An example of this can be seen in Amsterdam, where Dutch 3D-printing firm MX3D has been using semi-autonomous 3D printers to construct a bridge over one of the city's many canals, due to be finished by 2017. The printers are mounted on robotic arms, which slowly deposit matter that hardens and becomes the next part of the bridge. The arms themselves are on units that slowly creep along completed parts of the structure, depositing more material until they reach the other side of the canal, with no humans needed.

While the Amsterdam project is just a demonstration, the applications that will present themselves as the technology develops are considerable. Similar technologies could also help repairs, particularly for hard-to-access areas – robots could just scoot along the structure and print replacement parts or surfaces directly on top of the damaged area. 

The wider implications

While it may still be some years before 3D printers become common in homes and offices, many leading innovators are already experimenting with turning them into a commonplace reality. Where 3D printing was once thought of as a potential disruptor of manufacturing, these experiments in the construction industry – combined with those in health care – are beginning to show that its applications have far wider potential to change how the world works.

You may not think your industry is likely to be disrupted by 3D printing – but at the dawn of the age of the PC, many industries didn’t think computers would change the way they worked either. The full implications are not yet clear – but it will be the innovators experimenting now who are most likely to discover the breakthrough applications for this rapidly emerging technology

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