A few months ago, on May 24th, the first 3D-printed office building was inaugurated in Dubai. Conceived by the international architectural firm Gensler, this ultimate achievement in construction technology was made of concrete elements printed in Shanghai and then shipped to the final destination. This process is estimated be worth saving up to 80 percent in labour cost and up to 60 percent in construction waste. In a throw-away society that is struggling to implement a circular economy strategy, these outcomes are quite impressive.

Generally speaking, 3D printing could be defined as the process of making three dimensional objects from a digital model. The latter is usually created through a 3D modelling software and then upload in a 3D printer as the result of hundreds or thousands of slices (layers). The 3D printer reads all the 2D images (slices) and create the three dimensional object. The way it works to get the final result can differ according to the technology applied. After more than 30 years since it was first conceived, today 3d printers have evolved a lot offering a wide range of possibilities for the different uses. When Charles Hull invented the stereolithography in 1984, 3D printers were a brand new technology that helped designers create their prototypes easily without investing too much in manufacturing. In particular, Hull’s technology was based on the properties of photopolymer (an acrylic-based material) to become a solid piece of plastic when it is hit by a UV laser beam.

Today, 3D printing technology has evolved far beyond industrial applications allowing the creation of products made of different materials and we are now witnessing an important shift from relatively small objects to the realization of big elements as those applied in the construction field. Only a few years ago, it seemed impossible to imagine that one day we would have been able to build entire buildings through the 3D printing technology. Research on this field has evolved faster than previously thought.

After many attempts made by several international companies, in 2014 it was a Chinese construction firm that win the race of realizing the first ever 3d-printed building. Ten houses in Shanghai in less than one day. WinSun Decoration Design Engineering, that is the name of the Chinese company, used a 32 meters long, 10 meters wide and nearly 7 meters high 3D printer to build each one of the 200 sqm homes. On top of cost saving resulting in the use of recycling materials, the main breakthrough is probably the speed of time taken for this intervention.

Some point out that, despite WinSun’s achievement, the nascent 3D printing technology is still dominated by European specialists who keep on improving their research; while others doubt about the actual capabilities of the Chinese technology to deliver ten houses in just 24 hours. Besides all that, no one can deny that 3D printing is evolving very fast and that what we are now discussing about will be seen as obsolete in just a few years time.