3D printing of building: a revolution for everyone in a few years

Interview with Alessandro Tassinari, computational designer, founder of KEEEN – Technologies for Construction Industry and lecturer of the 3D Printing of Building course at School of Disruption.

Nowadays 3D printing of buildings is one of the new construction technologies with the largest growth margins. Is estimated to expand in the industry at an annual growth rate of 3 percent in the coming years. Most experts agree that 3D printing will see major developments in the not-too-distant future. It is also an industry that will offer great career opportunities. The construction industry has not undergone drastic changes for a long time, but now it is facing a technology that will revolutionize the way living space is conceived and beyond.

To understand the importance of 3D printing of building in the future, we need only refer to the characteristics of the construction process: fast and low-cost, flexible and sustainable. It reduces waste, storage, transportation and is highly energy efficient. We talk about this with Alessandro Tassinari, computational designer and founder of KEEEN, a start-up that designs and develops innovative technologies for the construction industry with a long experience in 3D printing of buildings.

3D printing is a very thriving market. What was the starting point?

3D printing technology has undergone a very strong acceleration in the last 10 years. The reason for this acceleration has been the democratization of the technology itself. At the industrial level, additive manufacturing processes have been used intensively since the 1980s. In those years, these were complex technologies accessible only by large companies. Over time, however, some of these technologies have been somewhat simplified to the point where they are accessible to anyone, including individuals. It is now 2010 and 3D printing is even being talked about on television. Here is the moment that really made a difference.

Numerous innovative companies and startups were able to structure themselves in a market that was previously difficult to reach, some became familiar with additive processes, and began to imagine uses beyond making prototypes or small functional elements. And this is where 3D printing for construction is introduced. Let’s be clear, some projects had already been prototyped years ago, but with the democratization of 3D printing, the application of this technology for building construction has accelerated dramatically. It is now one of the most interesting innovations if one imagines the world of building in the near future.

3D building printing is one of those innovations that can really revolutionize the construction industry. The workforce is still a key element and a limitation. What do you think is the endpoint of the near future of this technology?

I don’t think anyone can know the exact trajectory that will chart the technology in the next few years. What I can do, however, is to work out some hypotheses starting from considerations concerning our present. The world of construction presents very relevant problems that need concrete answers. Digitizing the fabrication of construction or building components is essential to automate production, make it efficient and keep it under control. This discourse also presents a long-term vision, where construction is expected to become less artisanal systems. Imagine robots 3D printing architectural structures, perhaps using km 0 materials collected on-site. 3D printing technology, if taken to this level of automation, can be a favored tool in the creation of structures in locations scattered across the planet. Even remote ones.

New technologies and trends in the contemporary world seem to act in opposite directions. The former aspires to an increasingly peculiar refinement of intellect and manpower, the latter demand increasingly sustainable actions from the perspective of “Earth rights.” How can 3D printing of buildings be made sustainable?

My vision in this regard is far from dystopian; I am convinced that technology can have a positive impact on our lives and the environment. What we can do is work around this concept and strive to limit all those negative aspects that can arise from the building process. One trend is clear: standardize processes and automate them. This implies the use of energy and the need for machines, dedicated manufacturing space, and trained people who know the processes and are able to manage them. It is no longer the human being who builds with his or her hands. The strenuous and dangerous tasks are delegated to robots, which are tasked with efficiently carrying out what the human being has devised. People can then do what they do best: generate ideas and refine designs.

Environmentally, it is inevitable that there are many steps forward to be taken, especially from the standpoint of energy and resource use. That said, 3D printing brings with it a number of benefits. By knowing the manufacturing process, it is possible to optimize the components to be made so that we have mechanically performing shapes, reducing the amount of material needed to make them and allowing freedom in the shapes that can be made. The benefits, then, come not only from the manufacturing stage but also from the design stage. Knowing how to design to make components by 3D printing is a key skill.

The manufacturing-related emissions are an issue close to the hearts of the younger generations who are suffering and will suffer more from the consequences of climate change. Where is 3D building printing more efficient in reducing emissions than the current construction process?

To build huge amounts of materials, tools, machinery, and people travel around the world to get to the construction site. 3D printing, used as an on-site or off-site process, stands in a sense in opposition to these dynamics. The processes are automated and reasoned upstream and involve the use of locally available materials or the transportation of minimal machinery necessary for manufacturing. To date, the emissions produced by the construction industry are far from negligible, not to mention the amount of waste and scrap that comes from the production of building materials and the construction sites themselves. With 3D printing, the mode of operation changes dramatically. As a result, waste and emissions can be minimized, as the material used in manufacturing matches exactly what is needed to make the designed components.

“The steps of technology insertion, side-by-side, and replacement of human operators must be thought out in advance, so as to ensure production and work continuity”.

What do you think are the challenges for such a contemporary field to install itself in mainstream practices?

This is undoubtedly the big challenge today: making the technology attractive in large-scale production. If I put myself in the shoes of construction companies, there is certainly a lot of work to be done on the efficiency side. The technologies available today still need some time to become as performant as required by a fast-paced market like AEC – Architecture Engineering Construction.

Following this, regulations need to act immediately, avoiding being a hindrance to the technological development we are working on and envisioning for the future. Instead, if I put myself in the designer’s shoes, so much work needs to be done from a skills perspective. Most architects and engineers still struggle to make certain design modes such as Computational Design and Generative Design their own. We need to do a lot of training and bring professionals closer to technology in some way. The more heads we have working on these dynamics, the more technology and processes will improve.

It is a type of technology that by revolutionizing the production process can also solve the housing problem and democratize access to housing, whether in large metropolises, slums, or poor and degraded areas. How far are we at the technological, bureaucratic-regulatory, political but also forma-mentis level from achieving such a great goal?

I personally do not believe that 3D printing can be the one-size-fits-all solution to issues of this magnitude. Buildings are complex objects, they are composed of very different elements, and each of them perfectly fulfills a specific function. For example, the pillars or load-bearing walls have the function of supporting the floors and roof of the building, and they are made of different materials or construction techniques. We can find buildings where wood, metal and concrete are coupled, each material fulfilling a specific function based on its properties.

For these reasons, I do not believe that 3D printing will ever be able to completely replace the many technologies already used in construction. Rather, it will be a building technology that will complement other ways of building. Some interesting applications we already see, and 3D printing technology is never the only one used for building. On the other hand, we cannot deny that, with a major reduction in current costs, we can get to the point of building a good deal of small structures in situations such as you describe. Some of the features: use materials that can be found on-site, use standardized processes, reduce fabrication time as much as possible. In emergency cases such as those you describe, I sell several critical issues.

Are some people afraid of this change? What effect will it have on an industry that not only in Italy, where KEEEN is located, still requires the labor of so many workers?

Automation is often blamed as one of the reasons why labor figures will be eliminated. Clearly, from the perspective of business, the use of machines and robots may be attractive for a whole range of reasons, but this does not imply that there should not be systems for upskilling workers. It is inevitable that technology is going to occupy spaces in the riskiest and most repetitive jobs. The human subjects who now perform those tasks will have to be supported in an upskilling process to make them, for example, capable of handling machines or working alongside them.

We are going to be at a time when work will be somewhat hybrid, and rightly so. One concept, however, needs to be very clear. The steps of technology insertion, side-by-side, and replacement of human operators must be thought out in advance, so as to ensure production and work continuity. This is an indispensable point of the whole process.

“We start from planet Earth, heading toward to Mars,” it says on the website of your start-up, KEEEN. How do you intend to further this purpose?

Our project starts from planet Earth, heading straight for Mars-a provocative statement that perfectly encapsulates our vision. At this stage of development, KEEEN aims to establish itself in the market as one of the most efficient and reliable companies for the production of prefabricated components through large-scale additive manufacturing technologies. Our core is the software that allows us to manage the manufacturing processes: it is an immediate system that leaves us in complete control as we move from design to manufacturing.

Hardware technology comes as a consequence, which is why we feel this strong vision is ours. We are convinced that once process management is optimized, building on planet Earth or planet Mars will not be so different. We use industrial robots in our processes to carry out the projects we are commissioned to do: our focus is about making the process efficient, simplifying relationships in the supply chain through models that, until recently, were foreign to the construction industry.

You are a lecturer in the “3D Printing of Building” course at the School of Disruption. Do you believe that teaching this topic in an online course can exponentially amplify the knowledge and spread of the topic and facilitate the formation of new players in the market or not?

Absolutely. Doing training in these areas is necessary and, personally, I also experience it with a professional duty. Realities such as KEEEN will increasingly need to welcome into their teams people who know the technologies, processes and the benefits and complications that orbit around them. We wanted to condense, in a structured course, all those basic concepts that will serve those who intend to launch themselves in this professional field. Pursuing this goal using an online course as a tool can be an effective way to reach as many people as possible around the world, with different ages and backgrounds. School of Disruption is an extremely innovative reality around which an international community has been created that will really be able to make a difference in transforming this world into a better place.

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