Through the 3D glass, darkly

A gantry-mounted 3D system can reportedly print structures at speeds of up to one metre per second.

Feel the irony? Ross Middleton says building is in a boom but reckons the economic worm is turning while costs are heading one way fast, raw materials and products are increasingly hard to source, waste is now a major issue, and the warm moist air of the environment is breathing down our necks . . .

Back in the day, 3D movies were all the rage. You wore a pair of funky glasses that helped give the illusion of a three dimensional perception.

Those glasses were no bloody help swinging a hammer though, and while the illusion is that the building sector in New Zealand is currently riding on a high at the moment, a confluence of issues surrounding the sector mean that adaptation and ongoing change are going to impact like never before — costs, materials, regulatory frameworks and changing environments being chief among them.

You would have to have been living under a rock not to have seen and heard about the costs of climate change, whether it be planetary, personal or business-related. Some of these issues are being encompassed by changes to the Building Act being enacted as we write.

If that new Act is not enough for your business, a ground-breaking law change that comes into effect in less than two years has been introduced at the Hive that will make climate-related disclosures mandatory for most big businesses, and is guaranteed to wash through to us small guys too.

As one legal eagle said recently, “When banks and insurers start looking at the risk they have from their portfolio that they insure or that they lend to, that will encompass not just listed companies but a much wider spectrum of business.”

Local bodies are getting paranoid about construction waste, and are eager to put their punitive bureaucratic mindsets to work in exercising the builder’s patience.

Take the mob in Auckland for example. As part of its climate plan, it is taking specific actions in areas such as what it euphemistically calls the “built environment”.

They say houses once earmarked for demolition are starting to be deconstructed or renovated to reduce waste, increase re-use, and provide training and employment.

Rimu floorboards, copper wiring, vintage textured glass and roofing iron are among the valuable materials that can be re-used and recycled. Such resources are currently the largest source of waste to landfill.

The council says an average new house build after all that “deconstruction” produces 4.5 tonnes of waste, including rather fancifully suggesting, materials worth more than $31,000 if they were saved rather than sent to landfill.

It is actively working to minimise construction waste, so investing in the skip market may not be a good idea.

As old dwellings are removed to make way for Kainga Ora housing developments in Auckland, organisations are working with the council to develop hubs where houses, once destined for demolition, will be deconstructed or renovated and on-sold.

Sales of recyclable materials will [they say] generate income to sustain and grow the deconstruction hubs.

All this activity creates jobs apparently. If local bodies are making moves, the writing really must be on the wall.

While reducing wastage and duplication in the consenting process may be all for the better, adapting to and accommodating a variety of new materials and construction techniques will keep us all on our toes.

Bringing the circle back to 3D, in relation to construction it’s not just about new technology, and usually revolves around a strategic combination of the technological, the analogue and the chemical.

With timber prices at all-time highs globally, and in New Zealand exacerbated by significant offshore contracts soaking up the raw materials, it makes sense to widen the market base.

Alternative construction techniques and materials as a way to alleviate cost and supply issues are coming to the fore. Steel is one option but comes with its own cost and sustainability issues.

Concrete and brick are the obvious options, but they also use plenty of wood. The answer is obvious — go for the gunge!

Houses and other buildings being constructed using 3D printed technology are a global rage at the moment.

Even in New Zealand, all those trendy media outlets love to show they have their finger on a pulse by writing about it.

Architecture and design web sites are full of them — from Apis Cor’s robotic construction of the world’s largest 3D-printed building, a two-storey office in Dubai measuring 9.5 metres high with a floor area of 640 square metres, to the boring modality of a three-bedroom family home on the outskirts of New York, on the market for an all-up cost of US$299,999 (I am always confronted by where exactly all these one dollar/cent savings come from; boy these guys have some sharp pencils).

SQ4D, the company that built the latter, says it can print full size concrete houses faster, safer and stronger while reducing costs, and produce homes that are affordable, sustainable and eco-friendly.

That’s three times faster with a 40% cost reduction, 600+psi compressive strength-tested, and using just three labourers for the entire job.

The house was built using a ruggedised gantry-style ARCS (autonomous robotic construction system) 3D printer made from top quality aircraft grade aluminium and stainless steel.

A lot of 3D tech advancement these days is in the nozzles, and SQ4D uses a variety of sizes, including an option for tangential control for optimum layer quality — hence less finishing work.

The inside of printed walls can be filled with 3D printed geometry or left empty for insulation, utilities and structural columns. Soffits, inclines and overhangs? No problem — if you can programme it and the mix is right, gunge away.

Gaining some media traction in New Zealand has been Waikato-based start-up QOROX (hate those capitals guys), which uses a robotic arm system, and has been busy gung-ing up park benches and such.

It is the local front for a Netherlands operation, CyBe Construction, and has obviously invested to the extent of a machine (from €180,000 ex-works), and testing the technology in local conditions and complying with our building standards. I can see you all doing your sums as I write.

The unit which can be seen on the local web site appears to be the RC 3Dp mobile concrete printer, and can be used in multiple locations.

It is described as ideal for construction companies and precast factories due to this portability.

The ABB robotic arm sits on a movable crawler, with rubber tracks that make it easy to manoeuvre the printer regardless of terrain.

The hydraulic feet stabilise the machine while it prints, and are extendable, increasing the total printable height of projects.

The mix-pump system moves the proprietary mortar through a concrete pump hose to the robotic arm, which then 3D prints in the programmed location. The robot itself is managed via a control unit that runs the software.

So, for medium-scale building in New Zealand, it could be a shoot-out between robotic arm and gantry-style ARCS for a 3D future.

Several local construction companies already use gantry-style operations — getting them mobile is the issue. Not to say some local geniuses won’t come up with something all their own.

With more than 1500 universities in the world, and by my precise calculations undertaken on the lid of a nail box, that gives a minimum of 53%, or some 795 actively working on 3D projects as we speak.

And that’s not counting research centres and proactive commercial operators.

Damn, my tongue’s stuck in my cheek again but, truthfully, I’m really only just scratching the mere surface of a fascinating and fast- growing subject here.

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