by John Benny

New mantra for Middle East builders: Design, download and print

Aug 19, 2019
Emerging TechnologyEnterprise ApplicationsIT Strategy

Three-dimensional printing in the building trade is gaining traction as construction enterprises put the technology to use in real-life projects.

construction site / abstract spiral / transformation / innovation
Credit: Metamorworks / Getty Images

On a sunny November afternoon last year, a small crew of workers descended on a deserted land near Saudi Arabia’s international airport to set up the foundation for a building. Five days later, a single-bedroom house consisting of several walls and parapets stood ready to be examined by visitors.

The workers at the site wore the logo of a Dutch company called Cybe, which was contracted to build Saudi Arabia’s first 3D-printed house in its capital, Riyadh. Such sights are becoming more frequent in the kingdom and the wider region as government and private players adapt 3D-printing technology at a faster rate to cut costs and counter the sluggish pace of construction activity.

What is 3D printing?

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is the process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file. In construction, the technology is used to fabricate buildings and construction components with the aid of robots, gantry systems and tethered autonomous vehicles.

This technology disruption could not have come at a better time for the region. About 26,000 construction projects worth more than $2.5 trillion (AED 9.25 trillion) are under way in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries as of June, according to BNC Projects Journal, and factors ranging from high labor expenses to harsh weather are making traditional construction unfeasible.

The UAE was the first to jump on the bandwagon. Three years ago, Dubai launched a 3D printing strategy, under which 25 percent of the city’s buildings would be based on the technology by 2030.

Taking a cue from its government, Emaar, the developer that owns Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper, recently announced a plan to build its first 3D printed home in the emirate. The company seeks to create a real estate landscape where customers can “design, download and print” their homes across the company’s portfolio.

Emaar’s chairman, Mohammed Alabbar, said the technology would bring “numerous” advantages such as reduced cost of construction, more efficient use of materials and higher levels of sustainability.

3D printing comes to Sharjah

Dubai is not the only locale with a budding 3D printing construction industry. The neighboring Emirate of Sharjah, where Cybe is building a 3D printed house in the Sharjah Research, Technology and Innovation Park (SRTI Park), is also seeing interest in the technology. The project, which is expected to be completed in the third quarter, comes at a time when the cost of traditional construction is increasing, said SRTI CEO Hussain Al Mahmoudi in a statement from June.

The project will also be supported by the American University of Sharjah (AUS) and a group of students from the institution’s faculty of engineering will get hands-on training in the technique.

The printing process begins with the generation of a 3D model using computer-aided design (CAD) modelling software. It is then loaded into build-setup software that simulates how the part will be made. Extrusion is considered the most common and simplest technique, where the concrete is selectively released through a nozzle and deposited in layers until the object is completed.

Countries desperate to solve problems such as affordable housing are driving a surge in demand for the technology. The market for 3D printing in construction is expected to touch $314 million by 2023. It stood at $130 million just two years ago, according to research firm IndustryARC.

3D printing potential for Saudi Arabia

In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is potentially a big market. The region’s biggest oil producer is looking to boost its sagging economy through a massive infrastructure development program and is increasingly adopting disruptive technologies such as building information modelling, augmented reality as well as 3D design and printing.

Earlier this year, Riyadh-based concrete maker Al Kathiri Holding signed a deal with Italian construction technology company Emmedue to increase its 3D-printed concrete capabilities.

In March, Saudi Arabia’s Elite Construction & Development Company purchased what has been described as the world’s largest 3D construction printer from Danish firm Cobod International.  

With this deal, the Saudi firm may have taken a step in the right direction. As far as housing and other large-scale projects are concerned — bigger is better.

Housing manufacturing could see “significant” advantages as more large-format printers, which have higher build volumes, become available, says Greg Paulsen, director of application engineering at industrial parts marketplace Xometry. The U.S.-based company’s clientele includes the likes of BMW, Bosch, General Electric and NASA.

Size and costs are limitations

Right now, however, size is a major limitation, Paulsen added.

Another limitation is the cost. While the technology saves considerable amounts of building materials, and halves production times, a high-end construction printer can carry a price tag of more than $250,000, making it accessible to only governments and builders with deep pockets.

A major selling point for these machines is their connectivity, but that also opens the door to cybercriminals and could have serious consequences once the technology becomes widespread.

The 3D printer, which was invented by Chuck Hull in the mid-1980s, has taken more than three decades to get mainstream acceptance. It has revolutionized medicine, and made it easier to replace industrial parts, but it could be a while before the technology changes the landscape of the construction sector worldwide.

In the meantime “it is very likely that 3D printing will play its key roles behind the scenes with site planning, visual aids, and rapid tools,” Paulsen told CIO Middle East.