Is 3D printing the future of construction?

The last decade has been one of rapid evolution in construction, with innovations like Building Information Modelling (BIM), cloud-based construction software, and offsite building, setting the stage for a whole new era in the industry. Aside from making the building process more efficient and collaborative, these innovations are enabling the advent of new tools and technologies. 

Case in point: 3D printing. 

3D printing, aka additive manufacturing (AM), has a variety of applications, most notably in the aerospace, automotive and medical industries, where it’s used to: 

  • Produce complex geometric parts
  • Create prototypes
  • Make custom-fitted implants and devices

Although still in its early stages, 3D printing has shown great promise in the building industry, with entire structures already being built more sustainably, with less labour and in a fraction of the time. In fact, according to a study by SmarTech, the industry is expected to generate a whopping $40 B in revenue by 2027.

Let’s take a closer look at this technology, how it works, its history and its potential to disrupt the Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry.

How is 3D printing used in construction?

Construction 3D printers work quite similarly to how your office printer works, led by a software program that “tells” the printer what the specs of the end product should be. In the case of 3D construction printing, you can use computer-aided design (CAD) or BIM programs in this capacity - with machines then building the structure one layer at a time.  

The building process itself can take place in one of two ways:


Using a 3D printer attached to a robotic arm, you can build entire structures onsite. In many cases, a combination of manual and automated processes are used, with concrete 3D printing covering most of the structure.


This method involves printing different construction components offsite (e.g. in a factory setting) and transporting them onsite for assembly later on. 

Within the 3D construction printing space, certain segments are growing at a faster rate than others. Here are just a few examples:

Fast-growing 3D construction printing methods

Extrusion 3D printing

Extrusion 3D printing, aka Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), “extrudes” material through a nozzle and layers it to create a 3D structure. Commonly used in onsite construction, this method works with materials like geopolymer, concrete, cement, clay, and plaster.

Powder bonding 3D printing

This method uses powder to create each layer of a structure with liquid as a bonding agent. It’s especially useful for building durable, lightweight and heat resistant structures, which undoubtedly contributes to its high demand. 

Fast-growing 3D construction printing materials

Concrete 3D printing

With benefits like reduced costs, decreased labour, higher speed and increased productivity, it’s easy to see why concrete 3D printing is an attractive alternative to traditional methods. Additionally, it’s less expensive to create double-curved surfaces and organic geometry. This segment alone is expected to reach a value of over $40 M by 2027.

Metal 3D printing

Using metal for 3D construction printing allows for more complex shapes and functionally graded elements through controlled heating and cooling.  In most cases, it is used for designing facade nodes and other connections.

3D construction printing: A brief history

Let’s start at the beginning; before we even dreamed 3D printing could be used in construction.

3D printing got its start back in the 1980s with the invention of the first additive technology:  stereolithography, or SLA for short. SLA creates items layer by layer, using a powerful laser to turn liquid resin into a solid material. Its first practical application was to create quick and accurate parts used in prototypes. In the years that followed, a few newer methods were added to the mix, including:

Selective laser sintering (SLS) 

An industrial 3D printing process that creates structures using a high powered laser to fuse small particles of polymer powder into a solid structure. It works by tracing digitally sliced CAD models layer by layer and building them from the ground up. 

Fused deposition modelling (FDM) 

This is the extrusion method we mentioned earlier. These printers usually create 3D objects by heating a material (e.g. thermoplastic filament), melting it and then extruding it layer by layer to form the desired shape. 

Direct metal deposition (DMD) 

This process uses a laser to transform powdered metal into a solid metallic object, layer by layer. 

As 3D printing technology evolved, so did its applications. One of its first uses in the Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry was as a tool for creating scale models of buildings and other structures. Later, as BIM gained increased attention and traction in the industry, so did 3D printing in construction. 

By the 90s, several organisations were already experimenting with 3D printing to create modular components and even full-scale projects. However, it wasn’t until the 2000s that things really started to move forward in 3D construction printing. Here’s a quick timeline showing some of the biggest milestones:

2004 - The first 3D printed wall

Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis of the University of South Carolina printed an entire wall. His greater goal? To print an entire house! His efforts won him a grand prize of $20.000 from NASA Tech Briefs magazine’s “Create the Future” contest. His entry was aptly named “Robotic Building Construction by Contour Crafting.”

2014 - A 3D printed canal house

This was the start of a “Research & Design by Doing” project in which an international team of partners got together to work on the ambitious project of printing a full-size canal house in Amsterdam. The goal? To showcase the potential of 3D printed architecture.

2016 - A 3D printed mansion

Built by Chinese company HuaShang Tenda, this two-story, 4.305 square foot mansion was built in just 45 days. After the framing, plumbing and wiring were placed, they printed the rest using concrete and a computer-controlled printer. The mansion is reportedly earthquake-proof and environmentally friendly, once again showing the potential of 3D construction printing. 

2016 - A 3D printed “office of the future”

Home to the Dubai Future Foundation, this 2.691 sq. foot building was built in 17 days using a large scale 3D printer that measured 120 x 40 x 20 feet. A true milestone in the history of 3D construction printing. 

The years that followed have shown no signs of a slow-down for 3D construction printing, with the structures getting bigger, more numerous and more intricate. Earlier this year, the city of Nijmegen unveiled what it’s calling the longest 3D printed bridge in the world - a concrete structure that spans an impressive 29 meters.

2021 also saw the completion of exciting projects like:

Industry demand for 3D construction printing will continue to rise, spurred by increased demand for cost-effectiveness, precision, replicability, decreased waste and sustainability. 

The benefits of 3D construction printing 

Here are just some of the benefits of 3D construction printing:

Waste reduction and cost-effectiveness

While conventional building methods typically order more materials than what is needed, 3D construction printing uses exactly the materials it needs to complete the structure. This makes the construction process easier to plan for and a lot less wasteful. 

Automating part of the process also makes it possible to save on some of the labour costs. 


3D construction printers can work 24 hours a day, 7 days per week, making it possible for structures all over the world to be built in a matter of days. This is significantly faster than conventional methods, which can take months or even years depending on the size of the building. 


3D printed structures can be made with materials that are completely organic and eco-friendly. This includes bamboo, clay and even recycled materials that would normally go to waste. Many 3D printers also work with solar energy, resulting in fewer carbon emissions. 


3D construction printing gives architects the freedom and flexibility to create complex designs that would be too challenging, too expensive or too labour-intensive to make with conventional methods (e.g. curved walls and unique facades).

Reduced human error

Making the construction process more automated through 3D printing would reduce the number of accidents and fatalities that take place using conventional methods. It also reduces some of the costly mistakes that happen due to human error. 

The limitations of 3D construction printing 

Like most early-stage technologies, 3D construction printing still has some room for improvement. Here are just a few of its limitations:

  • It can be an expensive initial investment.
  • It requires a specific skill set, and people with the right know-how are in high demand.
  • 3D printed structures still require manual labour for plumbing, framework and wiring.

In addition, there is still a lack of regulation in 3D construction printing, keeping construction stuck in the old way of doing things in some areas. 

The future of 3D construction printing

Although 3D construction printing is still in its infancy, it’s only a matter of time before the right advances and regulations come into play, making it possible for the technology to really take off. When used in combination with BIM, its potential in the building industry is seemingly endless. 

Interest, demand and awareness will no doubt continue to be fueled by 3D construction printing’s ability to deliver projects with increased speed, sustainability and reduced waste. Companies have already started experimenting with 3D printed structures made from materials like mud, recycled plastic and bamboo

Cost-effectiveness is also a factor of interest, with many hoping affordable 3D printed homes can help solve the housing shortage. The speed and efficiency of 3D construction printing also makes it an attractive solution to help provide disaster relief, refugee shelter and social infrastructure (e.g. schools) for people in need. 

There’s even been talk of the potential of 3D printed structures in space. In 2019, NASA awarded $2.061.023 to the winners of its 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge. A multi-phase challenge that involved creating a 3D-printed habitat for deep space exploration.

With so many exciting possibilities on the horizon, it’s safe to assume that 3D construction printing will play an important role in the future of the building industry.  

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Keith Cotter
Sales Manager