Big Thinks is the Digital Magazine of the Global Mastermind Group

Can 3D Printing be the Answer for the Cities of the Future?

In 2018, 4.2 billion people lived in cities; by the year 2050, 70% of the urban population, or 6.5 billion people, will inhabit cities globally, according to the UNDP.  It is estimated that 9 billion people will inhabit the planet, with 7 out of 10 living in cities.  This will be an unprecedented urban growth of 2.3 billion people, which will not only further strain the environment, but the global infrastructure as well.

World in HandsCities today are burdened with traffic congestion, waste production, and air pollution.  In addition, these urban populations are causing a strain on their ecosystem, as well as that of the rural communities, in trying to meet the needs for water, food, and energy.  We have an opportunity to create smart, sustainable cities that, if done correctly, can improve transportation, waste management, energy consumption, biodiversity, ecosystem conservation, and positively impact climate change.  Not only is the design and build imperative for the cities of the future, but effective management will be critical to ensure that economies, populations, and the environment thrives.

How might we achieve this?

With that in mind, one of the most dynamic ways to build these sustainable cities is to work hand in hand with city governments, architects, engineers, and the private sector to design, develop and fabricate buildings to meet the demands of the increasing urban population.  While Additive Manufacturing (AM), more commonly known as 3D printing, of small projects has been successful, especially in rural global locations, 3D printing of larger buildings is still in its infancy.

 In 2015, Winsun Decoration Design Engineering, constructed a five-story apartment block in China, which is the world’s tallest 3D printed building.  It took 12 years for the company to build the 3D printer used in this project at a cost of $2.3 million dollars and was the world’s first continuous printing 3D printer and the largest 3D house printer.  The outcome of this project proved that housing could be fabricated 70% faster than a traditional home, utilizing only 40% of typical construction materials and accomplishing the build with 50%-80% less labor. 

Additional benefits of this type of build include:

  1. Reduce Construction Waste of 30%-60%
  2. Increased Design Shapes (creating stronger buildings)
  3. On-demand builds (customized to geographical location)
  4. Decrease in transportation/fuel costs
  5. Decrease in carbon footprint
  6. Increase in recycling products (glass, fiberglass, metal, etc…)

As with any new product or technology, there will be hurdles that will need to be cleared in order to move forward on a larger scale. In addition to studying what impact this technology will have the environment,  Architect Outsourcing has identified the following constraints:

  1. Building Codes: standards and regulations need to be set
  2. Material Types: printers heads are limited in output
  3. Engineering Compatibility: blueprints are not compatible

Currently, given that the pros outweigh the cons of 3D builds, the west was slow to adopt this technology on a larger scale.  It wasn’t until 2019 that the University of Maine created the world’s largest 3D printed boat, leading the way for more additive manufacturers to work towards developing large-format 3D printing.  Given what we have seen so far, it appears that this technology will have an impact on the buildings of the future.  But will enough advances be made to rely solely on this type of manufacturing for the cities of the future across the globe?

What is reality?

It has been stated that planning, smart technology, infrastructure, and collaboration across all sectors must be well established by 2030 in order to be prepared for the influx of urban dwellers in 2050. Although great strides have been made across the globe with 3d printing of buildings, we must keep in mind that this is an emerging technology. More investment and research must occur before it can be deemed a complete success and a viable option for creating entire cities.  What we will most likely see is a hybrid result utilizing existing infrastructures and augmenting with 3D printing to modify and extend where possible.

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