3D printing is revolutionising Dubai’s sustainable construction industry

Bold targets and brave experimental building works herald Dubai’s status as the construction capital of 3D printing, reports Stuart Matthews

Just over 12 months ago, Dubai sent a shockwave through the global construction and design community when it inaugurated the world’s first fully functional, inhabited 3D-printed building and named it the Office of the Future.

Home to Dubai Future Foundation, the 250m2 building showed that the emirate’s 3D Printing Strategy, launched just a month before the building’s doors opened, was closer to becoming a reality than people first imagined. Its aims were possible, its potential huge and this new building provided both a proof of concept and case study example all in one elegant low-rise structure. A little over a year later and the 3D printing’s construction revolution is just getting started.

A powerful signal

Dr Noah Raford, COO and Futurist in Chief at the Dubai Future Foundation, says the the international coverage that the project received was quite stunning to a lot of people in the field, because they thought that such a development was years away.

“What’s potent about this and speaks so strongly to Dubai’s vision is that it took the chance of saying: ‘okay, we’re going to build this thing and learn from it’. This sent a powerful signal to the international real estate and construction community, because it was the first major market to say – 'this is the future'.”

The lure of 3D printing is clear once the potential benefits are assessed. These include significant reductions in both the time taken to build structures and, crucially for sustainable building, a significant reduction in waste. Reports cited by the Dubai Future Foundation indicate that 3D printing technology could cut construction costs by more than half, cut labour costs somewhere between 50 to 80 per cent and reduce construction waste by up to 60 per cent.

“The intention is to not only modernise but ‘futurise' the construction industry in Dubai,” says Raford. “There will be a phased roll out, starting with the most sophisticated and high quality contractors and developers first, which will then work its way through the value chain as the rewards go to those who actively seek to be involved. Early adopters will be the people who are going to appreciate the high-end value that 3D printing enables.”

Challenging targets

As Dubai envisages all new builds to be made up of 25 per cent 3D-printed components by 2030, the emirate has set a target that will challenge its construction industry, while also driving the development of the enabling infrastructure needed to help 3D printing take off as a sector. The target will be introduced gradually, rising incrementally over the next decade and giving time for the sector to develop around demand.

Although it is early days in the strategy’s implementation – the first two per cent target doesn’t come into force until 2019 – construction businesses are already exploring how they can adapt to the demands of the fast emerging technology.

“We're still at the beginning,” said Christopher Smeaton, BIM Manager of Landscape, Urban Planning & Design at KEO International Consultants. “We’re seeing how feasible it is and building a business plan [that looks at] how we can implement 3D printing within the company. The first step is to get the rapid prototype printers within the company, so we can do all the testing we need to do at a small scale.”

The domino effect

One of the knock on benefits of the strategy is likely to be felt in the area of building information modelling, known as BIM, a class of software used to create accurate, virtual 3D models of buildings prior to construction. The development of 3D printing and BIM modelling look likely to be intrinsically linked, with 3D printing making the adoption of BIM technologies all the more necessary and leading BIM teams to learn demanding new skillsets.

“One of the first things is to look at the software we are using and make sure it is compatible and can be converted into the tools to work with 3D printers,” said Smeaton. “But the nature of people at the forefront of BIM is that we’re passionate about new technology and construction methods, so were already looking ahead for what’s next.”