New storeys in 3D printing

Forget the wallpaper, it's the wall that's printed here. Could the technology soon be a major construction player?

· Credit: Caixin

It might sound crazy, but soon you could find yourself sitting on a 3D printed chair, eating 3D printed food, inside a 3D printed building.

In the latest breakthrough with the technology, Chinese company Winsun has managed to print a five-storey apartment building and a 1,100m2 villa, complete with decorative elements, both of which are on display at Suzhou Industrial Park in Jiangsu Province, Eastern China.

According to a report on the technology news website CNET, the structures were built using a series of 3D printed components, manufactured at the company's factory using a 6.6m high by 10m wide by 40m long 3D printer array.

Each element was formed layer by layer from a material comprising recycled construction or industrial waste, such as glass and tailings. Completed components were delivered to site and assembled complete with steel reinforcement and insulation compliant with official building standards.

The printer array was developed by company CEO Ma Yihe, who has been designing 3D printers for over 10 years. In March last year he claimed to have printed 10 houses in 24 hours using the same system.

The printing process uses a CAD design as a template and a computer controlled mechanical extruder arm to lay down the concrete, which is treated with special hardeners so each layer is strong enough to support the next.

‘The walls have a diagonal reinforced print pattern inside that leaves plenty air gaps to act as insulation when assembled on site,’ said Winsun in a statement on its website.

Using recycled materials reduces the need for quarried stone and other conventional construction materials. Winsun claims it can save 30 to 60 per cent of construction waste, reduce production times by 50 to 70 per cent, and cut labour costs by 50 to 80 percent. The villa cost around $161,000 to build.

Winsun 3D printed apartment.
Winsun 3D printed apartment. · Credit: Caixin

At the other end of the spectrum, the latest desktop 3D printer designs could help fuel a greater level of collaboration among construction project teams.

Alvise Simondetti, associate in Arup's Foresight, Research and Innovation team, told RIBA Journal: ‘Project teams with members in different countries could see huge improvements in collaborative working by using 3D printing. Models shared online could be printed locally. Not only could they see and hear what their remote colleagues are talking about, they could feel it as well.’

Consulting a physical model can bring a new level of understanding to projects, he added: ‘Ours is a physical world, and although digitisation and virtualisation have improved the way we work, I believe sometimes people engage much more readily with physical models. Think how much easier it is to understand a design when you can flip a physical model of it around to see what it looks like from every angle.’