Dubai's largest 3D printed structure took just three workers. What does this mean for the future of construction?

3D printed housing has slowly been grabbing headlines and this week the largest structure to date was built in Dubai by Apis Cor. Dubai has plans to continue investing in this area and has a goal of 3D printing 25% of all of its new buildings by 2030.

This is an ambitious goal which could clearly cause significant disruption in the construction industry.

The move to 3D printing could take an industry which traditionally relies on a high volume of relatively unskilled workers and transform it into an industry which only requires a low number of highly skilled workers.  This would have huge repercussions for the region which is infamous for its large migrant worker labour force in the construction industry. Would this create an increase in unemployment, or greater opportunities in other industries, as the construction of hotels, shopping malls and other tourist hot spots will be quicker and cheaper?

For the construction industry it clearly speeds up the process of erecting a building.  But are 3D printed buildings simply the new pre-fab?  3D printing is in fact not hugely different from modular construction.  For instance, WinSun, a Chinese 3D construction firm and one of the earliest pioneers in 3D printing for house construction, prints its houses in a factory and then ships them to the building site for assembly.

Printing a 3D structure still requires human labour for installing reinforcing steel, electricity, plumbing, windows and other accessories beyond the basic structure. While 3D printers can erect walls and build structures faster and cheaper than humans can, the machines themselves are also expensive which, at current scale, makes them more expensive than human labour.

However, 3D printed houses have captured public interest, which will fuel investment in the technology which in turn will make it faster, better, and cheaper over time.

We will certainly see more of this in the near future.

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