By Ibon Iribar, Investment and Open Innovation Advisor, Cemex Ventures
It’s a design engineer’s mission to challenge the status quo and venture into new territory — territory that more and more includes robotic arms that can print in any orientation, opening up a utopia for designers.
In 2021, the global 3D construction printing (3DCP) market was worth $10.94 million and is forecasted to grow at a CAGR of 101% between 2022 and 2030 — and with good reason. Advanced 3DCP technology has numerous advantages. It can recreate the appearance of multiple wood grains, form structures with intricate detail, and remove the need for adhesives.
But the benefits extend beyond meeting aesthetical and functional requirements. From printing recycled nylon to biocompatible resins and sustainable cement, its versatility and additive nature promote sustainability as well, minimizing environmental impact and eliminating waste.
So how does 3DCP work, and what stages of the building process is it influencing most? Let’s dig a little deeper.
Stage 1: Material science
The functionality and sustainability of a design start with materials. While concrete remains a popular choice for 3D-printed buildings due to its malleability and durability, 3DCP technology opens the door to alternative material use, such as clay, recycled plastics, and sustainable cements. What’s more, this technology increasingly permits and promotes the use of local materials, minimizing the strain on complex supply chains and reducing Scope 3 emissions.
In a little town in Italy, TECLA is the first 3D-printed clay home. It was built from the site’s soil, water, rice husk fibers, and a binder, making it a valuable recipe in underserved rural areas where standard construction materials may be harder to come by.
If we move further south, we can look at an example of a 3D-printed home made from sustainable cement. D.fab was used to build a 140 m2 house in Angola in just 30 hours by installing water and electrical pipes at the same time as printing. Since D.fab has a CO2 footprint 1.5 times lower than the average 3D-printing mortars and traditional cement, the solution makes sustainable construction increasingly feasible.
Most often, 3D-printable blends can be formulated for a specific purpose, such as printing walls for housing or for creating decorative architectural elements. The printing technique enhances material usability compared to traditional building methods, which are limited to the shapes of cutters and molds.
Stage 2: Digital design
Design engineers commonly use computer-aided design (CAD) and building information modeling (BIM) software due to their ability to create precise digital representations. With data-rich information about building elements and materials, designers can test how components will look and respond to structural forces, adjusting their weight and size accordingly — producing data ready to be inputted into 3D printers.
Traditionally, once design engineers digitally finalize their dream designs, construction workers move to the assembly stage, physically recreating foundations and building shells.
Instead, with 3D printing, design engineers must divide their models into layers that additive manufacturing technology can print. Slicer software translates material specifications, layer height, and extruder type, determining how each layer should be printed and the tool path that the printer needs to follow. In other words, it takes a set of inputs from the designer and translates them into a form that the 3D printer can understand.
Stage 3: Assembly
When it comes to additive manufacturing, the process is in the name. It builds layer by layer using only the ingredients required — much more efficient than milling a wood beam out of a tree.
Rather than depending on mass-production assembly lines that are built to create limited sizes and shapes, the printer’s extruder moves according to the sliced layer instructions to create the desired 3D structure.
Like traditional modular design, construction workers can 3D print individual components in controlled environments off-site or entire houses on-site if they wish. While a conventional home can take four weeks to build, large-scale construction printers can produce buildings as quickly as 28 hours, depending on the material, size, and detail.
Looking forward: From prototype to mass adoption
3DCP startups and industry giants are experimenting with the structural diversity this new construction technology presents, as well as the different benefits it brings to construction and society, such as speed of production, waste elimination, flexibility in design, alleviation of labor shortage, and alleviation of affordable housing crisis.
To move 3DCP along the innovation cycle to mass adoption, construction companies, and startups must work together on standardizing equipment and material formulation. Additionally, design engineers will increasingly need to learn new design methods to align with slicer software and 3DCP tools.
Using 3DCP offers advantages such as faster construction times, reduced labor costs, minimized material waste, and the ability to create complex and customizable designs. As this technology continues to evolve, it has the potential to transform the construction industry by providing innovative and sustainable building solutions.
 Straits Research: 3D Printing Construction Market Size, Report, Forecast to 2030
 CNN: Is this 3D-printed home made of clay the future of housing?
 Cemex: With new 3D printing technology, CEMEX and COBOD build a better future
 Xometry: Slicer in 3D Printing: Definition, Features, and How it Works
Watch this video on Striatus, 3D printed masonry bridge, as an example: