Would you buy a UAE house that had been built by robots?
Etienne Mouton, the head of technology for the Middle East at WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff, a construction consultancy, is not surprised that the first “printed” office is being built in the UAE.
The UAE’s National Innovation Committee was one of the first organisations in the world to announce plans to create an entire office – including its contents – from three-dimensional (3D) printed materials.
The project, which is being built to house the staff of Dubai’s Museum of the Future, uses a 20-feet-high 3D printer and is to be completed by 2017.
When announcing the project in June this year, the committee’s chairman, Mohammed Al Gergawi, said: “The idea of 3D printing buildings was once a dream, but today it has become a reality.
“This building will be a testimony to the efficiency and creativity of 3D printing technology, which we believe will play a major role in reshaping the construction and design sectors. We aim to take advantage of this growth by becoming a global hub for innovation and 3D printing. This is the first step of many more to come.”
Mr Mouton says that the Middle East – and Dubai in particular – is “at the forefront of technology and wants to prove that things can be done early on and at quite a large scale”.
Driven by the development of building information modelling (Bim) software, project design teams can now create incredibly detailed, information-rich virtual models of buildings as opposed to two-dimensional blueprints.
Recent advancements in 3D printing and materials science mean that these models can then be automated to allow for the “printing” of entire buildings.
Already, Winsun, a Chinese construction company, has used a 20-feet-high printer to print a house that was 33 feet wide and 132 feet long from recycled construction waste within just 24 hours. It has also used a 3D printer to create units for a five-storey apartment building.
Another Chinese company, Zhouda Group, claims to have created 3D homes that were printed in factories that could be assembled on sites within three hours. In Amsterdam, MDCX, a Dutch firm, is using a 3D printer to make an entire bridge out of steel.
There are two main advantages of building in this manner – both of which have the potential to massively reduce overhead costs such as materials cost.
Winsun has said that since the exact amount of material is used, the amount of construction waste generated can be reduced by between 30 and 60 per cent. In some instances, material recycled from previous buildings can be reused.
The second is the cost of labour, which Winsun estimates can decline by between 50 and 80 per cent.
Although precise figures for construction are hard to quantify because these techniques are still in their infancy, a report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch published this year argued that robots would be used to perform about 45 per cent of all tasks in manufacturing by 2025. That could lead to savings of between US$600 billion and $1.2 trillion as workers in construction, maintenance, manufacturing and agriculture are replaced.
This forecast is based on just 15 to 25 per cent of workers’ tasks being automated in developed markets, and only 5 to 15 per cent of workers being replaced in emerging markets. On such an assumption, between 30 million and 60 million existing jobs would be axed from the global workforce, and construction is the sector – other than health care – whose employees are considered to be most likely to be replaced by robots.
Andrew Elias, the managing director of Dubai-based Kele Contracting, believes that if 3D printing technology can be developed to create mass-produced homes, the Middle East is a natural target market.
“This modern and new method of construction will provide a very attractive solution to construction companies who wish to extend their projects to remote areas where traditional construction techniques prove challenging,” he says.
“If buildings are suited to the Middle Eastern climate and can withstand the environmental extremes, then this will herald the start of a new wave of innovative 3D printed, low-rise buildings and represents a new untapped niche market for creative construction companies.”
For instance, Saudi Arabia is said to require up to 500,000 new homes a year to meet growing demand from a young population that is expanding at 2.5 per cent a year.
Initiatives have been put in place to create plots for 92,000 homes under a deal between the ministry of housing and Parsons, an engineering firm, but much more needs to be done.
According to JLL, only 30 per cent of Saudis own their own homes (compared with a global average of 70 per cent), with the high cost of land in the kingdom cited as the main barrier to entry for buyers.
Mr Elias argues that the Saudi market “presents a unique opportunity to implement the 3D technology” in construction, as similar techniques have been used in other markets in the past – not least the prefabrication of worker accommodation for the oil and gas sector.
Also, 3D printing would enable a mass replication of homes in more remote areas where land is cheaper.
Others are not so certain that the construction sector is ready for 3D printed homes.
Faizal Kottikollon’s Dubai-based company KEF Holding is leading a drive to use robots for many tasks currently performed on sites, but his vision relies on the construction of building pods created in factory-controlled conditions and then bolted together on sites, as opposed to buildings merely being created by robot printers.
Mr Kottikollon has invested $50 million in a factory in Tamil Nadu, near Bangalore, that can create modular homes, hotels and even hospitals.
He believes that the industry is “still some time off” from being able to mass-produce homes through on-site printers, stating that time and cost savings being extolled have been overstated.
For instance, although the same model of home could be used to replicate thousands of villas at no extra cost, for each one a 3D printer zone would have to be assembled and calibrated before any activity could get under way.
“When these time factors are also added to the actual time to print the layers [of a home], it could take up to three weeks for completion,” he said.
Charles Dunk, a Bim manager at Aecom Middle East, argues that 3D printing in construction is “a misnomer”.
“We’re talking about rapid and cost-effective prototyping,” he says.
He says there are benefits in the type of prefabrication techniques being pursued by Mr Kottikollon and others that are superior to the 3D printing approach.
“Typical materials used in construction, such as concrete, brickwork and partitions, do not lend well to 3D printing,” he says.
“Houses are not made with a single material, upon which 3D printing relies. It’s easy to get hung up on 3D printing but really we must talk about prefabrication.”
Both have high capital investment costs, but also limitations, says Mr Dunk. Whether “printed” or assembled on site, buildings often still need to be built on foundations and connected to existing utilities. Homes built by 3D printers would also all be the same as neighbouring buildings, as savings are only made through repetition.
“Unique designs are more expensive regardless of whether prefabricated or made on site,” he says.
Despite this, Mr Mouton believes that 3D printing will have a useful role to play on site, even if this is as simple as providing replacement parts on remote sites, to which it may take a long time to ship certain goods.
“You can physically 3D-print components of a building, which would obviously save time and costs,” he says. “That’s the true benefit of having this technology.”
Mr Kottikollon believes the construction sector needs to embrace better working methods – be it prefabrication building sections in factories or using 3D printing.
“We are basically [using] the same method for over a hundred years, apart from some advancements in adhesive polymer technology. He says, I cannot think of any other industry which accounts for a significant chunk [up to 38 per cent in some cases] of each countries’ GDP that has not been transformed by any real innovation.”
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Updated: November 14, 2015 04:00 AM