There has been a lot of activity related to 3D printing of houses in the UAE during the past year. Since 2016 when HH Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid announced Dubai’s 3D Printing Strategy, we have seen a big push by the UAE’s contracting companies to explore how to apply 3D Printing within their industry. Most of the attention and focus was on 3D Printing using concrete to construct buildings and other structures, and that is a massive area that requires exploration. However, where the technology stands today, concrete 3D Printing is still at its infancy. The process requires significant research and development before it can be competitive and on par with other methods of concrete buildings such as modular construction. 

Globally there are over 65 companies active in 3D Printing within the construction industry. Of the 65 companies globally only 16% are working on large scale 3D printing solutions that can be applied in direct building activities. Most of the existing concrete 3D Printers are best suited in producing complex shapes for non-structural architectural and aesthetic elements such as furniture, ornaments, and exterior and interior decorative features. 

Dubai’s Role in Construction 3D Printing

In Dubai, there are five concrete 3D Printers as of today, of which at least two of those systems use gantry based process while the others are using robotic extrusion process. Concreative and Accoina have set-up dedicated concrete 3D Printing facilities and have started providing commercial services focused primarily on non-structural architectural features. Concreative is powered by XtreeE a robotic system, while Accoina uses D-Shape gantry system. 

Other projects implemented in Dubai such as the 3D Printed office and the 3D Printed DEWA Lab, as well as the 3D Printed house project in Riyadh, should be viewed as R&D projects in which the learning achieved was very important. Despite those achievements, the construction industry is still at least 2 years away from being able to build commercially viable 3D Printed buildings.  Progress in other areas of use of 3D printing technologies by contracting companies are significantly more advanced.  

The construction industry has adopted 3D Printing across six main applications. A study by the Boston Consulting Group (summary below) shows the maturity and commercial viability of application within various activities in the construction sector.  

Construction 3D Printing

Source: BCG “Will Printing Remodel the Construction Industry”

3D Printing in Dubai’s Scale Model Making Industry

In the UAE architectural models constitutes a large and advanced market. There are dozens of 3D Modelling companies in Dubai, serving the UAE and Saudi Arabia with the majority of them relying on 3D Printing to complement their processes and operations. Besides model for developers, a key value-add to contractors and architects for using 3D Printing is to create functional scale models to test certain aspects of the construction process. For example, Dubai based ALEC construction group used 3D scale models to simulate, test and plan how the bridge between the two towers of the Zabeel One development will be assembled onsite. 

3D Printing Model Making Industry

Source: Immensa Technology Labs

3D Printing for interior contractors in the UAE

3D Printing is being widely used in the UAE by interior contractors. Progressive UAE based interior contractors have utilized 3D printing to produce customized fittings and fixtures as well as certain façade elements that would have been too costly, or too complex, or required extended periods of time to fabricate using conventional methods. One example done by an interior contractor in Dubai consisted of head boards for hotel bedrooms that needed to adhere to certain weight limits. By using a wood-based filament to 3D print the head boards the weight was reduced by over 60%. Other examples used by contracting companies in the UAE included 3D Printing of oversized AC ducts covers, customized partition walls, unique door handles, and signage boards.

3D Printing-interior contractors in the UAE

Steel door handle designed by Alexander Pelikan

 3D printing: Spare parts production in UAE

An area that is overlooked by the Construction Industry players in the UAE is the production of spare parts using 3D Printing. With the exception of a handful of progressive firms such as the Middle East’s Consolidated Contractors Company, regional construction companies have not taken advantage of 3D Printing when it comes to procuring spare parts for their machinery and equipment. Globally, this has been an area of rapid growth, where companies in the construction sector and others have jumped on the opportunity to disrupt the existing supply chain and reap the financial benefits of digital inventories and 3D Printing of spare parts. PwC’s Strategy& published a paper in 2017 titled “ The future of spare parts is 3D: A look at the challenges and opportunities of 3D printing”

3D printing Spare parts production in UAE

Source: Immensa Technology Labs

3D printed molds for construction in the UAE

3D Printed molds and formworks is a massive area of opportunity for the construction industry in the UAE. When it comes to building complex or unique concrete structures and shapes 3D Printed molds provide significant value-add to contractors. Immensa, a UAE based additive manufacturing specialist, collaborated with a number of UAE based contracting companies to test a specific advanced method of producing 3D Printed molds. A patent has been filed by Immensa on the production process of this specific mold making technique. Creating complex and/or unique molds requires a large number of labor hours and tends to be a very lengthy process, as such more companies in the UAE are exploring the use of 3D Printed molds and formwork which would significantly reduce lead time and resources.

3D printed molds for construction in the UAE

Concrete Column designed by NowLabs, produced by Immensa Technology Labs using 3D Printed Molds in cooperation with CCC

How soon can we start living in 3D Printed Buildings?

There are a few obstacles that need to be overcome, of which one is the regulatory framework and building code. Although Dubai is a global leader in pushing 3D Printing in Construction, and there is an extremely active push by various Dubai authorities on incorporating 3D Printing in the UAE’s building regulation, the process takes time. There are many implications and hundreds of factors that need to be considered by the likes of Dubai Municipality. 

The second obstacle is the actual technology. The amount of attention, resources, and funding that has gone into producing concrete 3D Printing is encouraging. The current generation of 3D Printers whether based in Dubai or other places illustrates the potential capabilities of the technology however the technology still needs significantly more work to achieve technical and financial viability. The most successful developers of concrete 3D Printers have been the ones that have spun out of construction companies such as Acciona, Royal Bam Group, Besix, and other similar groups. The focus of those companies is directed more on material development than just the technology. Since the most prevailing obstacle in the adoption of concrete 3D Printing today is the material composition. As more construction companies start investigating concrete 3D Printing, the knowledge base expands, and collective experience increase. Dubai has generated enough awareness to be regarded as one of the cities at the forefront of experimenting with 3D Printing in the construction industry. It will be an exciting few years for the construction industry in the UAE as we see more innovation and development coming out of Dubai. 

More insight on the role of 3D Printing on the UAE’s construction industry and globally can be found in a feature published by MEED Magazine