Around the world, many peoples’ dream of owning their own home has taken a step backwards as house prices and building costs have soared in the wake of COVID-19. But what if you could order a home online and have it built in a matter of weeks? And you could do it with planet-friendly materials, at an affordable price? That’s the prospect being created by Additive Manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing, one of the emerging technologies which is disrupting the construction sector.

Greener, cheaper buildings

AM offers multiple benefits for construction. Under increasing pressure to reduce carbon emissions, the industry is looking to greener materials and methods for a more sustainable approach. The ability to incorporate low-carbon and recycled materials into AM products means it could have a much lower environmental impact. Big reductions in wastage also contribute to a smaller environmental footprint. Up to 30% of raw material can end up as construction waste in traditional methods. With 3D printing, the material utilization can be up to 90%, as peripherals that are needed to cast a slab of concrete, for example, are no longer needed.

For an industry as cost-sensitive as construction, the savings on ancillary materials alone could give attractive boost to profit margins. But AM also offers potential time advantages – and associated savings in labor costs. A single-story office building in Dubai, the world’s first fully-functioning 3D-printed building, was completed in less than a month. With further potential savings from supply-chain and transportation efficiencies, AM starts to look like a winning bet.

Barriers to adoption

Forecasts suggest the printing construction market will grow to around $1.5 billion within the next five years. That’s not the whole story, though, according to Alex Liu, head of AM programs in Asia for ASTM International. Liu recently worked on a global AM construction landscape analysis, which revealed that adoption of AM is currently lagging its potential.
“There’s no set of standards that the regulatory agencies can adopt to develop policies that regulate this part of the industry. So when someone asks whether a product meets the building construction regulations, no one has the answer, because it doesn’t exist.”

Whilst there are many high-profile examples of printed buildings, such as the Dubai office block, or a 3D-printed steel bridge in Amsterdam, which provide successful proof-of-concept, wider market adoption is stymied by the uncertain regulatory landscape. It’s a challenge that ASTM is determined to take on, says Liu.
“We’re aiming to develop a set of standards specific to AM construction that can be used by governments and regulators around the world. Traditionally, consensus standards can take several years to approve. You need data to back up content that becomes part of the standard, and in a voluntary process it can take time to complete the research and data-gathering alongside someone’s day job.”

A digital licence plate

Taking a lead in standards development
ASTM’s Additive Manufacturing Centre of Excellence (AM CoE) is accelerating this process by funding targeted research that will advance key standards. Concrete printing is likely to be a mainstay of AM construction, so the AM CoE and F42 AM technologies committee are looking at existing concrete construction standards to identify possible read-across into AM, as well as gaps where research is needed. A project – validating the drying time for printed concrete, for example – can be funded and completed within six months, and a standard drafted and published within a year. Traditionally, that might take closer to three years. So the novel ‘research to standards’ approach radically changes the landscape for companies wanting to invest in new technologies.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg situation,” says Liu. “If you have standards, you can develop the building codes, and that will accelerate adoption of the technology. But if there’s no adoption of the technology, people will argue, ‘why bother writing standards’?”
Liu’s work on the AM construction landscape analysis, however, shows clearly that the demand is there – the number of companies in the space has grown rapidly over the past six months, to around 130 organizations globally. The pace and scale of expansion is bolstering ASTM’s decision to take a lead in enabling safe, harmonized adoption.

Emerging, converging technologies

In doing so, they are also fueling further innovation. AM’s disruptive potential lies partly in the opportunity to integrate construction printing with other emerging technologies. Assembling structures layer by layer makes it possible to embed sensors, in turn enabling an Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem which can support real-time condition monitoring and predictive maintenance, as well as improvements in fire safety. Meanwhile, automation and robotics can combine with AM to allow building in remote and challenging locations, where it might be difficult or dangerous to get workers on site. That could even extend to extra-terrestrial building projects. NASA, for instance, is exploring the potential for AM projects on the Moon.

The rapid advances in technology make it vital for standards to not only keep pace, but for bodies like ASTM to anticipate and set the direction. Collaboration with leading innovators like NASA, as well as academics, manufacturers, construction companies and government agencies around the world is laying the groundwork for progressive regulation responsive to market needs. Thanks to a cooperative agreement with the ISO, technical experts from ISO and ASTM are harmonizing standards development for AM, building a powerful framework for global integration, which could in time prove a further advantage over traditional construction.

Through the work of ASTM and its partners, the next few years could see AM transform the construction sector. And that could mean a lot more of us realizing our home-ownership dreams.