Is 3D printing the future of GCC construction?

The uptake of 3D printing will depend on whether suppliers and consultants are willing to adapt

Shaping the future: The region’s first-ever 3D printed office, named Office of the Future, was launched in Dubai this year.
Shaping the future: The region’s first-ever 3D printed office, named Office of the Future, was launched in Dubai this year.

The GCC’s first 3D printed office was unveiled in the UAE last month. Office of the Future, which took 17 days to develop, was inaugurated by Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai Media Office confirmed on 23 May. The project forms part of the Dubai 3D Printing Strategy, which was launched in April 2016 with the aim of 3D printing 25% of Dubai’s buildings by 2030.

Office of the Future’s launch marks the commencement of an era wherein offsite building works will assert their benefits in the GCC’s construction sector.

Tightened fluidity amid dwindling commodity values has intensified the demand for tools and techniques that can accelerate construction schedules and reduce costs. For instance, the listed price of aluminium on London Metal Exchange (LME) had witnessed highs of $1,640 per tonne as of 27 April, 2016, before dropping to $1,550 per tonne on 27 May.

At $100 per tonne, steel prices appear to be stable on LME. However, the metal’s fortunes are more accurately represented by its price in China, which according to World Steel Organisation leads the global pack of steel-producing nations. On 27 May, China Steel Corp, the country’s largest steelmaker, raised prices for July and August shipments by 10.3% over values listed in its delivery contracts for June.

It would be unwise to believe that these global shifts will not impact the UAE’s construction market. Even as the country’s materials supply sector migrates towards a model of self-dependence, the competitiveness of this fledgling industry – coupled with tendencies to import materials – will rest on global economic factors.

In this context, the emergence of off-site construction practices in the GCC is hardly surprising, and Dubai’s Office of the Future is the region’s next step towards building better and faster. Indeed, the development is a “case study” for the world to study 3D printing’s scope as a construction tool, HH Sheikh Mohammed remarked.

“We announce today the opening of the first 3D printed office in the world, less than a month [after] launching the Dubai 3D printing Strategy that showcases a modern model of construction,” the Ruler said.

“We see this project as a case study that will benefit regulators as well as research and development centres at the regional and international levels on [the] real applications of 3D printing technology.”

Office of the Future is situated within the Emirates Towers’ premises in the city. The building spans 250 sqm, and its design also offers space for exhibitions and workshops as well as other events.

The structure was printed using a mixture of cement, and building materials that were designed and made in the UAE and the US. These materials have undergone a range of tests in both China and the UK to ensure their reliability.

An arc shape was adopted for the building to ensure its safety and stability. Systems to reduce energy consumption, such as window shades to offer protection from direct sunlight and keep the building cool, were also incorporated in the structure, Dubai Media Office reported.

A 3D printer 20ft high, 120ft long, and 40ft wide was used to manufacture the building. The machine features an automated robotic arm to implement printing works.

The total number of workers involved in the printing process included one person to monitor the function of the printer and a group of seven people to install the building’s components on site, as well as a team of 10 electricians and specialists to implement mechanical and electrical engineering systems.

As a result, the project’s labour cost was cut by more than 50% compared to conventional buildings of similar size.

The full model took 17 days to print, after which internal and external designs were laid out. The office was installed on site within two days to Cat-A fit-out standards.

The speed and efficiency of 3D printing will spur its regional uptake, according to Scott Coombes, director and managing partner at Dubai-based consultancy, AESG. Coombes says suppliers are more likely to adopt 3D printing if its implementation is driven by a collaborative approach.

“While [the industry] talks about innovation and building information modelling (BIM), it isn’t talking about a huge change in the actual materials that are available for construction,” Coombes tells Construction Week.

“So the issue for suppliers [adopting 3D printing] isn’t necessarily its pricing and how they’re going to identify a cost-efficient model, but that they’ll have to be more open to the industry wanting to procure 3D printed materials from them.

“If architects and engineers are designing to incorporate 3D printing in their operations then naturally, when the procurement process takes place, they will ask suppliers for 3D printed materials. Suppliers who say they cannot offer it will be losing out on a market opportunity,” Coombes adds.

There is little doubt that 3D printing is indeed a booming sector in the region. Spending on 3D printing in Middle East and Africa (MEA) is set to increase from $470m in 2015 to reach $1.3bn by 2019, according to forecasts released by International Data Corporation (IDC) in January this year.

The research firm’s Semiannual 3D Printing Spending Guide found that spending in the region will increase at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 30.8% over the 2015-2019 period, outperforming the worldwide growth rate of 26.9%.

In its report, IDC said that it expects this high growth rate to “have a transformative effect on how previously mass-produced goods are manufactured, with 3D printing enabling such products to be customised for individual requirements”. MEA’s share of global 3D printing spend is expected to grow from 4.3% in 2014 to 5.0% by 2019.

Remarking on these findings, Martin Kuban, senior research analyst at IDC Manufacturing Insights, said: “It is clear that 3D printing offers considerable growth potential in the MEA region.

“The technology will dynamically proliferate across multiple manufacturing industries over the coming years, and we are already seeing significant interest from manufacturers in the GCC countries looking to utilise 3D printing technology.”

IDC’s 3D printing research indicates that the MEA 3D printer market is headed for greater mainstream adoption. Technologies that support 3D printing are rapidly expanding their utility, and industries such as healthcare, construction, and retail are also likely to accrue the benefits of this improved functionality.

Coombes agrees with the view, adding that 3D printing could be implemented in numerous ways to support construction.

“3D printing may not necessarily be used for the creation of concrete blocks,” he says.

“Consultants may not have to choose between 3D printed concrete and traditional cast blocks. The technique could be used for façade components or for sanitaryware supplies. For example, 3D printed bathroom modules in a hotel could lead to savings of cost, installation time, and manpower.

“Some 3D printed material may feature complex geometrical designs and could be produced at a greater speed.

“It’s not neccessary that suppliers concern themselves with high capital costs, because they could continue to exist in the market while new firms supplying 3D materials make an entrance. Suppliers should see this trend as an opportunity,” Coombes adds.

In April, Dubai’s Museum of the Future, the Institute for Digital Archaeology, UNESCO, and Harvard and Oxford unviersities unveiled a life-sized 3D printed restoration of the arch of Palymra temple – destroyed by Daesh in 2015 – at London’s Trafalgar Square.

The arch was restored using a technique called Polynomial Texture Mapping, which will be used to preserve at-risk MENA monuments through the collation of the Million Image Database, an initiative backed by Museum of the Future.

In May, Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) also released expression of interest documents for the construction of 3D printed laboratories at its Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park.

Million Image Database, the Dubai 3D Printing Strategy, and DEWA’s endeavour each exemplify how Dubai can contribute to 3D printing’s future applications in the region. Coombes says Dubai’s governmental support will continue to boost 3D printed construction in the region.

He concludes: “A top-down approach is essential for 3D printing to grow, and Dubai has proven that. This is what Dubai does so well, and its efforts show how quick and efficient 3D printing can be.”

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