Can 3D printing become mainstream for construction in the Middle East?

Known for being at the cutting edge of 3D printing, the UAE has high hopes that the innovative technique will transform its construction industry.

November 26, 2019

The UAE’s 3D printing buildings are getting bigger and bolder as it nurses ambitions to bring the nascent construction method into the mainstream.

In October, Dubai unveiled the world’s largest 3D printed two-storey building in Al Warsan, following on from showcasing the world’s first-ever functional 3D printed building back in 2016.

Since then, most plans for 3D printed schemes in various countries have been residential but as the innovative technique builds traction, developers are starting to consider its wider potential in other real estate sectors. Dubai, in particular, is looking to become a global hub for 3D printing, according to its government.

“Dubai and the UAE have long had a huge emphasis on new methods and continues to push boundaries in utilizing the latest technologies across all sectors,” says Ben Jackson, head of project and development services, JLL MENA.

“But 3D printing cannot go it alone if it’s to achieve true scale and become a standard feature of the construction industry; it also needs modular construction methods to support its deployment.”

Hybrid holds the key

Practically, 3D printing creates shapes for fluids to fill, which in turn become solid structures. It’s a technique which Jackson says combines well with modular construction assembly methods - and should facilitate wider use.

“Construction purely through 3D printing is currently limited: a tower development may be a stretch, but there’s no reason why it cannot assist the delivery of components such as facades, ceiling systems and composite concrete products which are then assembled to make up that tower,” he adds.

Such use could also address other potential stumbling blocks facing the wider adoption of in-situ 3D building printing, like getting printing equipment to sites which may lack the required infrastructure and environment for it to function properly.

Such a hybrid method of off-site 3D printed components and modular construction would amplify 3D printing’s already sizeable benefits. “It allows developers to speed up the construction process and reduce costs compared with traditional processes, especially when you consider the amount of time and labor that can be saved,” says Jackson.

According to Dubai officials, the Al Warsan property was built by 15 people in 24 hours, more than halved costs from Dh2.5 million (£530,000) and produced 60 percent less waste.

“Less energy used, as well as fewer wasted raw materials due to 3D’s accuracy, can only be a good thing,” adds Jackson.

Aesthetically, 3D printing has also excited developers and architects due to the distinctive, progressive designs that have emerged.

“What we’ve seen so far are smaller exciting examples of what can come in the future,” says Jackson.

There’s been more research and development efforts into the materials used in the 3D printed elements – with a focus on materials that can both be printed and have properties that can cope with structural loads, such as concrete.

“That’s advancing quickly. When 3D printing, BIM design and printing hardware technology converge with structural printable materials, the product could be extremely disruptive,” Jackson says.

The use of 3D printing may not be at an inflection point yet, but wider, more uniform use is a possibility, he adds, “as long as modular methods are still in the room”.

Scaling up

It’s early days for 3D printing but developers are looking at how it can be used to address some of the world’s housing issues for low income families, along the lines of a forthcoming 50-house scheme in El Salvador from non-profit startup New Story and construction tech firm Icon.  

“3D has potential in countries where there is high demand and, in some cases, the need for housing for the first time,” Jackson says.

Meanwhile, Dubai state developer, Emaar Properties, has plans for 3D printed townhouses at its new Arabian Ranches III residential complex. While off-plan buyers are encouraged to get involved in design, such schemes could allow developers to offer uniform designs and therefore scale up.

“Entire residential districts are the next phase,” says Jackson. “Dubai, given both its space for development and need for affordable homes, as well as its progress so far, is well-positioned to step up.”

The state’s strong desire to innovate, and its broader emphasis on new technologies, are likely to continue reshaping Dubai's domestic construction industry.

“Development and construction across the region can only become more efficient,” Jackson says. “At a time of massive digitization of design and delivery methods, I’m confident we’ll see more examples of both 3D homes and 3D offices – and hopefully more interaction between 3D and modular methods – in the coming months.”