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What's Next in 3D Printing? Your Building.

Although some may not think of 3D printing as BIM, the following information could change your mind. When thinking of 3D printing, some may think of printing cute little trinkets or something not relevant to the construction process, however several of the next items up for print may be surprising.

How about a fusion of robotic assembly and 3D printing utilizing concrete to actually assemble your next building?

If the current trends continue, that could very well be what the future holds.


Manufacturing has seen many advances over the years. The days of mass production and assembly lines have been a big factor in America’s success over the last century and a half.

"If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." – Henry Ford

The use of Computer Aided Design (CAD), Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) and Computer Aided Engineering (CAE) has augmented our mass production mentality over the last fifty years. In fact, it’s helped the manufacturing industry take their production to the next level.

Some of the more exciting advances have been in two main types of manufacturing;

  • Additive manufacturing - Technologies that create objects through a sequential layering process and 3D printing would fall in this category
  • Subtractive manufacturing - Utilizes machining technologies like turning, drilling, boring, welding and milling with Computer Numeric Control (CNC) controlling these activities and all being driven from a CAD model.

Over time, the construction industry has embraced some of these new technologies while simultaneously rejecting other advances. However, an example of adaption to advanced manufacturing techniques can easily be seen in a modern steel mill as beams are extruded to predetermined dimensions, with all holes drilled, openings precisely cut out, components welded on, and all derived entirely from a CAD model. 

Mechanical contractors have already embraced the use of plasma cutters creating duct pieces directly downloaded from a CAD model.


3D printing is an additive manufacturing process where material is printed layer by layer to create an object. The material can be plastic, epoxy, metal, concrete or human cells, to name a few. Printing nozzles or lasers can be used to layer the material.

Here are a few examples:

  • Printing of plastic parts while on service calls. Instead of having to leave the jobsite to retrieve a much-needed part, technicians can print it out from the 3D printer on their truck, saving time and money.
  • General Electric is using 3D printing to create fuel intake nozzles for jet engines. They are also looking to print turbine blades in the near future and instead of having to use subtractive manufacturing to create the precise turbine blades, which results in excess waste, they could print them perfectly and accurately saving material and time.
  • Some biomedical companies currently have 3D printers that print human stem cells. To think where this technology could go is simply amazing. Need a new heart? Hit print.

3D printing is available to everyone, even if you don’t have a printer. A printer can be purchased for less than $2k or there are online printing services. MakerBot Thingiverse is a good place to start. Of particular interest is their WALLY Wall Plate Customizer, which allows one to print wall and switch plates in about any configuration.

Image courtesy of Chris Krueger at The New Hobbyist

With Trimble SketchUp, you can design your model and export to the STL file format used by 3D printers. Staples office supply is scheduled to bring 3D printing to their stores in 2013. You can upload your files to be 3D printed and pick them up at your local store or have them shipped to you.


Where we are heading in the near future with 3D printing is what is most exciting. For the construction industry, there are some interesting things on the horizon, such as:

  • Robotic assembly for interior wall components such as plumbing, electrical systems and rebar as well as 3D printing of an entire concrete wall.
  • Behrokh Khoshnevis is currently conducting research at the University of Southern California’s School of Engineering. You can read an article and watch the video here. He calls the process “Contour Crafting” and they are looking to Contour Craft a number of structures including some lunar bases. Make sure and check out the Animation & Video section and additional house printing video.
  • Loughborough University in the UK is working on 3D printing of concrete. You can check out the video Future of Construction Process: 3D Concrete Printing.

It is quite amazing to think of your new home being created in less than a week or a new office building in a few months, but this where we are heading.

Lastly, there are some of the concerns associated with 3D printing that revolve around intellectual property. With current technology, one can use a camera from a cell phone to take a series of pictures of something to create a 3D model and it can be subsequently printed. The Statue of David in a museum could be a target and is one of the reasons that photography is strictly prohibited. Any illicit company equipped with a laser scanner and 3D printer would easily be able to manufacture knock-off parts and flood the market.

If you have not experienced 3D printing, check out some of the resources above or just web search 3D printing and you’ll find a wealth of knowledge. Trimble Navigation and the new Trimble Buildings group will be scrutinizing this emerging technology closely.