3D printing and construction: Turning theory into reality in Amsterdam

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Visiting the 3d printing Canal House in Amsterdam

Can you really build homes and office buildings through 3D printing techniques? Amsterdam-based architects and technologists, backed by some local government support and manufacturers, believe housing and commercial projects can indeed be constructed through the extruded plastic moulding process of three-dimensional printing.

The approach here has similarities to the California-based “contour crafting” initiative, though the U.S. model suggests that the best material for this layered form of construction might be concrete rather than plastic and it looks like the printing size/moulds are larger in the US concept (though the Netherlands co-ordinators say they are using the world’s largest 3D printer to complete their structure), and thus perhaps more suited for the scales required for actual construction projects.

As it goes, it will take at least a couple of years to complete the first house-building project in Amsterdam, and I doubt that the construction costs and speed using current 3D printing techniques could compete with more conventional building practices. Of course, no one suggests the project, in itself, is economically viable.

The Amsterdam 3D printer at work on the Canal House
The Amsterdam 3D printer at work on the Canal House

It is a research initiative, testing, refining, developing and exploring the concepts of custom-building larger structures through the 3D printing modelling concepts. As the Amsterdam researchers test out new ideas, they expect to find better, faster, more economical solutions, speeding up the construction process, reducing costs and enhancing the concept’s environmental potential. (Yes, plastic isn’t perfect, but this construction model virtually eliminates waste, and any waste that might occur can quickly be recycled.)

There’s obvious marketing potential in challenging and testing the frontiers. The architects behind the project have created a media/marketing environment attracting visitors and relevant press attention (including a visit from US president Obama.)

I think it will be some time before 3D printing techniques become practical for complete building projects, though there may be more immediate applications with specialized fabrications and customized features. Nevertheless, this stuff is worth watching.

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