3D printing is the new kid on the manufacturing block. But is there now, or will there ever be, a future for 3D printing in construction? Will American construction firms really be “printing” buildings anytime soon?

    What is 3D printing?

    3D printing is actually a simple concept. Essentially, a three-dimensional design is made on a computer using some kind of CAD software. Then, layers of a polymer, metal, or composite are “printed” by a very expensive machine until they constitute what was created in the computer-based design.

    Also known as “additive manufacturing”, 3D printing deposits materials only where needed, resulting in less material waste and enabling much faster production of low quantity structures, or objects with complex geometries.

    What does 3-D printing have to do with construction?

    A lot, or a little, depending on who you ask.

    Some doubters say it will be a long while before there is a real surge in the “printing” of buildings, in part because of the requirements such materials like foundation, framework, flooring and HVAC must meet—and also because of the difficulty with 3D modeling a very large structure.

    However, proponents of 3D printing applications point out that the technology might have some more practical applications in the meantime—such as the creation of unusual or small-batch tools or parts—that construction professionals can take advantage of immediately.

    Future forecast for the 3D printing industry

    3D printing has already been around for a while. A tech industry researcher, IDTechEx, claims that when the first commercial 3D printer went on the market in 2012, its ripple effects bolstered the entire industry, from consumer-level to expensive industrial-sized.

    In Europe, 3D printing of larger structures is going forward. For example, a company called MX3D has been approved to build a functional bridge over one of Amsterdam’s canals to demonstrate its new robotic 3D printing technology.

    Because of a surge in interest in 3D printing for all applications, IDTechEx noted that thermoplastic filament—one of the key materials used in 3D printing—is expected to become a $1 billion industry by 2025.

    So whether or not it has a solid future in construction, which it may well eventually, 3D printing looks like it’s here to stay.