When you think of commercial construction materials, supplies of concrete, brick, steel and wood stored in warehouses and shipped on demand would likely come to mind. Today, you can add a mix of materials generated on demand and on-site from 3D printing.
"Three-dimensional (3D) printing is an additive manufacturing process that creates a physical object from a digital design. The process works by laying down thin layers of material in the form of liquid or powdered plastic, metal or cement, and then fusing the layers together," as defined by Investopedia.
Although homes constructed from 3D printing materials have received media attention in the residential housing industry, the technology has yet to break into commercial projects. However, that is beginning to change. Branch Technology, a prefabrication and technology company that specializes in large-scale 3D printing, has just made commercial 3D printing a reality.
In Chattanooga, TN, contractors are getting set to build Tennessee Valley Credit Union's newest branch with what is claimed to be the first 3D printed exterior using cellular fabrication (C-Fab).
According to Branch Technology, the 3D printed structure combines materials and industry-standard hardware to create composite wall systems with "incredible" strength to weight ratios. This results in a code-compliant facade that balances the demand for well-designed building within the project budget and timeline.
Branch Technology claims the system uses a unique printing method that allows material to solidify in open space, creating a matrix of polymer in virtually any shape. While this new design is both innovative and fundamentally different than other 3D printing techniques, it reportedly uses 20 times less material.
"This project is a staple of design freedom offering a one-of-a-kind product outside the literal box of repetitive, conventional construction and facade manufacturing," said John McCabe, Branch Technology's advanced concepts team and director of communications.
So, what does this mean for the future? According to Smart Architect, there have been mixed responses to the enactment of this new technology because it is still in its early stages. The main concerns include how 3D printing may affect the average construction worker on-site, how disruptive it might be within the housing market and if 3D printed homes are actually safe for habitants.
However, per Smart Architect, structures built from 3D printing come with many upsides, which include:
If 3D printing takes root, it has the possibility of disrupting existing business models and supply chains.
Reveel, a provider of shipping intel, thinks that "3D printing could upend this traditional economy. Manufacturers are already using 3D modeling and additive manufacturing to design prototypes. If those systems can scale, manufacturers will be able to make a huge variety of products for themselves, giving them a competitive advantage."
Manufacturing "powered by 3D printing would be one that requires fewer factories, fewer warehouses, and fewer miles shipped. As each link in the supply chain is consolidated, a trucking route or air shipment is made obsolete," the firm said.
Software provider, AMFG agrees. "As the manufacturing environment becomes more volatile and uncertain, businesses are looking to reduce the complexity of their supply chains. The opportunity now exists to simplify the supply chain by using 3D printing to manufacture end-use parts in-house."
Bryan Mason, editorial associate