3D Printing: A “newborn, niche market” climbing to the top

CW speaks with ACCIONA about its distinct approach to 3D concrete printing

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock
Luis Clemente, Chief Operating Officer, ACCIONA
Luis Clemente, Chief Operating Officer, ACCIONA

With the ever-evolving and dynamic nature of technology, industries across the world continuously adopt varied tools to create efficient solutions.

English author Douglas Adams had once said, "We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works.” Today, technology is beyond 'stuff that works'; there are many boxes to tick, with cost efficiency, sustainability, speediness, and adaptability topping the list.

In the construction industry, 3D concrete printing or additive manufacturing is identified as a "newborn niche market that will compete with other construction tools and technologies," chief operating officer of sustainable infrastructure solutions company ACCIONA, Luis Clemente, tells Construction Week.

"Concrete 3D printing will keep growing rapidly in the coming years," he adds.

Dubai's 3D Printing Strategy — announced in 2016 by the Vice President and Prime minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum — aims to transform the emirate into a ‘leading hub of 3D printing technology’ by 2030, and dictates that 25% of the buildings in the emirate will be constructed using the technology by 2030.

Stating that 3D concrete printing not only compares well but is an ideal alternative to the traditional methods of construction,  it reaps benefits such as low costs and freedom of shape, Clemente says.

 "As technology keeps developing, other advantages such as automation and higher productivity will gain even more importance. This already happened with other 3D printing technologies that have evolved from rapid prototyping to actual production."

More recently, the company built the Middle East's first 3D-printed bus stop in the emirate of Ajman, in line with the Ajman Transportation Authority's vision.

The bus stop was the first project in the region to be printed using powder bed technology. The printing work for the 4.5m long, 2m wide, 2.3m high, 3-tonne bus stop was completed in less than 10 hours, ACCIONA confirmed.

Commenting on the 3D-printed bus stop, Clemente said in a statement: “The project allows us to showcase another way of applying 3D concrete printing technology: making iconic, innovative and sustainable urban street fittings."

Industry response to 3D printing tech

In 2019, ACCIONA launched the world's largest operational 3D printer in Dubai using powder bed technology.

Speaking about the product, ACCIONA's Middle East managing director, Jesús Sancho, said in a statement: " The arrival of the world´s largest 3D printing machine in Dubai's Ras Al Khor Industrial Area represents the availability of this revolutionary and unique technology in the GCC, and represents our pursuit to achieve a better planet."

After launching the world's largest operational 3D printer in Dubai, the next step was to gauge the market sentiment towards the technology.

"After we installed and commissioned the 3D machine, we organised an event to showcase our printer to the UAE and the GCC regions. The event was successful, and helped our clients to understand this technology," Clemente tells Construction Week.

Clemente indicates high demand for the product and hints at its potential, adding that ACCIONA is already fast-receiving new purchase orders for the 3D machine.

"We have also participated in all of the relevant 3D printing public tenders issued in the UAE and the KSA to date. In addition, we have met potential clients and delivered a few projects already. So far, we have been able to meet the demand with room to cover incoming projects."

Clemente admits that while several organisations are recognising the need to switch to 3D printing construction methods, ACCIONA "stays ahead of the curve" and plays the game differently by displaying an edge in powder bed technology and will soon adopt extrusion technology in 3D printing.

Powder bed technology is an off-site 3D additive manufacturing technique associated with structure accuracy, and based on a deposition process.

"Our main goal is to find the opportunities to take advantage of the major assets and differentiators that the concrete 3D printing industry can offer, using powder bed technology, i.e, tailor-made solutions based on complex designs that could not be done with traditional methods or would be expensive to produce.

Concrete elements with complex shapes as an added value, unique and intricate urban elements, special architectural features for buildings and unimaginable creations coming from the minds of the most ambitious sculptors are all in ACCIONA's roadmap," Clemente says.

COVID-19 impact on operations

The past few months have proved to be a trying period for individuals, communities, and businesses alike across the world, due to the ongoing outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which has been declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization. The global pandemic has impacted several sectors, with each bearing the brunt differently.

ACCIONA faced a "temporary impact in its development plans," due to the outbreak, Clemente said, adding that the company will be at "full speed" very soon.

"At ACCIONA, we take all the instructions from the authorities very seriously. The well-being of all of our employees in the 65 countries that we operate is of paramount importance. In the GCC countries, there are special protocols in place across our sites."

Increasing knowledge in the field

As technologies evolve rapidly, the pace at which individuals understand, accept, and adopt the tools must be matched accordingly. This calls for training with the aim of creating awareness, even in the case of 3D printing, to "understand what the best cases and applications of the technology are," Clemente says.

Once awareness and knowledge in the field has been ensured, the next step is to create skilled jobs in the sector. "Even though printers are bringing automation, in the sites or production facilities, we still need operators to make things work. Most technical professionals, as well as blue-collared workers, can easily be trained for the work," he tells Construction Week.

There is still a requirement of "qualified professionals to improve and develop 3D concrete technology" to cater to the increasing demand of the growing demand for 3D printed infrastructure in the UAE, Clemente adds.

What's keeping the 3D printer busy?

In the past 12 months, Clemente notes that the 3D machine has produced architectural pieces that were installed at the Shindagha Wave Museums in Dubai as urban furniture. In addition, ACCIONA has sold pieces of coral reef that appear natural and are better suited to marine life, in comparison to the concrete blocks used in the ports and piers around the world, he tells Construction Week.

Previously, the Spanish contractor built the first footbridge in the world in Alcobendas, Madrid, Spain, using 3D printing, as well as the first architectural piece of cultural heritage - the Romanesque arch of San Pedro de las Dueñas, made on a real scale using 3D concrete printing.

"We have submitted our bids to two large 3D printed public tenders in the region, which are still pending an award."

ACCIONA will also display its 3D printed elements at the Expo 2020 Dubai, which it will be heavily involved in, Clemente adds.

The company marries construction with sustainability seamlessly, ensuring cost-efficiency, minimal use of time, and fast-track production in the process.

"Today, most applications and experiences are pilots and demonstrators, but, as it occurs with any technology, in the future it will be applied only in those cases where the technology provides advantage, whether it is for lower cost, complex design, economy of scale, a more sustainable solution, the need for a fast-track production or any other reason," Clemente says about the "newborn niche market" in conclusion.

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