And the model construction worker of the year goes to: the 3D printer!

Home to Southeast Asia’s largest 3D construction printer, Singapore is looking to embrace the technology one step further after printing landscape furniture and architectural features in the Tengah and Bidadari HDB estates. This eagerness will pave the way to a faster, highly automated construction landscape with 3D printing at its fore. As demand for public housing continues to soar, Singapore needs to improve productivity while reducing construction costs effectively, and 3D printing may be the preferred alternative. However, further research and well-defined regulations are required to eventually determine whether Singaporeans will ever get to live in fully 3D-printed homes.

Despite the construction industry’s immense economic contributions, its labour-intensive model is strained under low productivity and inhibited technological advancements. With the introduction of 3D construction printing (3DCP), the production of complex geometrical shapes through a computer-aided design (CAD) model can be fully automated. 3DCP condenses the bulk of construction processes such as concrete mixing, bricklaying, and plastering into one, eliminating the need for scaffolding and formwork, two of the most labour-consuming procedures in construction. Firms will need to restructure their workforce by accommodating higher levels of human-machine coordination and bringing more young local talents on board to facilitate this shift. As a result, buildings are constructed quickly, efficiently, and safely while minimising labour costs and material waste. Weighed against labour savings between 50 to 80%, the upfront costs of 3DCP should not discourage firms from adopting it on a larger scale.

Repetitive, mundane construction tasks may give way to uneven consistency and low-quality work when performed by unskilled hands. These issues heighten downtime and impede worksite productivity for remedial measures. With 3DCP and proper monitoring, all these labour-related woes are resolved – buildings and their components can be mass-produced identically in mere hours. Curved surfaces and complex details can be printed out without compromising architects’ design freedom while not increasing risks of erring or incurring additional expenses. As the adoption of 3DCP spreads, skilled labour and regulated guidelines need to be tightly integrated into both design and construction processes to prevent miscalculations that may result in an expensive mess.

On the other hand, while prioritising construction efficiency and productivity, workers may be pushed beyond their comfort zone to meet tight deadlines. Adding that to the dirty, dangerous, and demanding conditions of worksites, fatigued workers and communication breakdowns may cause accidents and injuries. Proper adoption of 3DCP on-site can overcome mismanagement of equipment and logistical mishaps, thus improving occupational health and safety while protecting valuable human resources. Technological advancements in robotic systems over the years have enabled the widespread use in construction sites. By integrating 3DCP, the construction community will enhance the automation of specific, repetitive tasks. Despite these assurances, information on the health and safety readiness of 3D printing is still insufficient to place complete trust in large-scale applications. However, the construction scene would not have to wait for too long as the recently introduced Technical reference 87 (TR 87) will facilitate the leap forward into a safe 3DCP sector.     

3DCP will ultimately revolutionise sustainable construction, as continuous research on carbon-neutral materials should focus on the durability and applicability for wider use in construction. Thanks to 3DCP, big projects reliant on over-engineered components now need not be prefabricated off-site. Given this convenience, redundant equipment and various time-consuming logistical tasks can be avoided, increasing construction productivity significantly. However, careful consideration and investigation of 3DCP waste and its management are necessary for stakeholders to understand its environmental effects in the future better.

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