How Prefabricated Construction & 3D Printing Shape Construction's Future

While software, IoT, and the cloud reshape construction's digital landscape, there are two technologies poised to reshape the industry's physical landscape: prefabricated construction and 3D printing.

Prefab construction is a process modeled off modern manufacturing best practices. It involves fabricating the majority of a structure in an offsite factory, and then shipping those pieces to be easily assembled on site. The process is employed in creating both residential and commercial structures.

3D printing refers to a variety of techniques that are used to print a physical structure. The technology is developing rapidly, and materials as diverse as concrete, metal, and resin are currently used to build entire structures like bridges and houses, as well as individual building components.

The benefits to both construction methods are numerous. Each can reduce supply costs, decrease build times, simplify project planning, and create greener processes and more sustainable buildings.

While they haven't hit the mainstream quite yet, both methods are already making serious waves in the AEC industry, with several major 2017 breakthroughs. Below is a small sample of the stories that made headlines in 2017.

(Update: We've returned to this blog with a few stories from 2021, so you can see how the industry's developed over the last few years)

Prefab Construction & 3D Printing in the News

The world's first 3D printed, plastic footbridges were built in China.

The footbridges debuted at the Digital Future Shanghai Summer Workshop and Conference. Made from modified plastic and built on a robotic platform, the 11 meter bridge can hold up to 5 adults at once.

3d printed footbridge

Technical University Munich 3D prints unprecedented lightweight cement pipes.

Inspired by the natural structure of bird bones, TUM designed a 3D printed, lightweight cement pipe with a network of internal supports. The team used a process called selective binding to create the design, which would be impossible to fabricate otherwise.

3d printed concrete pipe

Marriott undertook its largest prefabricated construction project to date.

Earlier in 2017, Marriott Hotels committed to building 50 new prefabricated hotels, and in December they started their largest project so far, an $86 million building in Hawthorne, CA. The rooms were built offsite over a 4 month time period, and are already outfitted with furnishings. After arrival on site they will be stacked and connected to utilities, at a rate of 100 rooms in five days.

Marriott logo

A prefabricated house took five hours to build in rural Spain.

This modular house was built over four months in a factory 600 miles from the site. Comprised of eight total modules, the two story house was able to be assembled in five hours once the pieces arrived. The dwelling is also designed to be easily dissembled and transported if desired.

prefabicated house

From Texas to the International Space Station, 3D Printing and Prefab Construction Are Here to Stay (2021 Update)

Prefab construction may have taken a hit publicly with the collapse of Katerra, but that's not stopping other successful startups, like FactoryOS or Prescient, from attracting investors and expanding the industry.

And as prefab construction continues to grow, 3D printing is officially mainstream.

Here are a few highlights:

-- These homes and military barracks in Texas built by the startup ICON.

-- This real estate on the West Coast and Habitat for Humanity's efforts on the East Coast.

-- The first 3D printed steel bridge

-- The first 3D printed house in Germany, built with 3D printed concrete

-- A moon dust 3D printer sent to the International Space Station

-- 3D printing in space construction

Evidently, 3D printing has arrived, and it's likely to keep growing with technological advances, new applications, and fresh entrants on the market.

a 3d printed military barracks
Source: ICON

An Insider's Perspective on Prefabricated Construction

For an inside look at how prefab construction and 3D printing are shaping the construction industry, we sat down for an interview with Sandy Anuras the VP of Technology at blokable.

Blokable is working to increase access to quality housing through prefabricated construction. The company manufactures 'Bloks' that can be configured into a range of designs at scale.

Sany Anuras headshot

For those new to the concept, how do you define prefabricated construction?

Prefab refers to a variety of construction types that are mostly built offsite and assembled onsite. It refers to anything that’s not stick-built, on-site construction including modular homes, manufactured homes, or mobile homes. At Blokable, our flavor of prefab is a steel-framed modular building system built in our factory in Vancouver, WA.

What do you see as the advantages of prefabricated construction over traditional methods?

The biggest advantage of offsite construction in a factory is that you can parallelize the project. Instead of having to wait for the foundation to be complete to start building the frame, you can be building the structure as the site is being prepared. Then, if all goes well, as soon as the site preparation is complete, you can simply crane in a mostly completed structure. Reducing time to build reduces risk and cost of construction projects.

Additionally, indoor construction protects the workers and materials from adverse weather conditions, so you’re de-risking your project in that way as well

Finally, at Blokable, we have assembled a team of experts across construction, manufacturing, design, and technology to create a high quality and innovative housing product. The unique part of our product is that we can bake in some interesting tech components, such as sensors and screens, that you couldn’t in any other process.

Are there situations where traditional construction proves a better option than prefab?

There are definitely instances where stick-built construction is the right choice over a prefab solution. For example, if the transportation costs outweigh the savings or if your site can’t fit a crane/semi-truck for the delivery, it may be better for you to choose a traditional approach.

What do you see as Blokable’s niche in the prefabricated construction sector?

Blokable’s mission is to make quality housing attainable for everyone. We want to do that by bringing modern materials and technology automation into the modular construction industry so that we can drive down the cost of construction to real estate developers. The vision for our Blokable system is to have a flexible, high-quality building system that both developers and architects can use to achieve a variety of construction typologies.

What construction tech/software do you all use at Blokable?

Our architectural designers use Autodesk Revit and AutoCAD. Our engineers use Solidworks. Our technology team is developing proprietary software called BlokSense that will act as our “operating system” and will streamline the ordering, manufacturing, and support of our homes.

Where do you see prefab construction headed in the future? How do you think Blokable will help shape that future?

The construction industry’s productivity has greatly lagged the total economy, leading to a $1.67T productivity gap according to this McKinsey report. The effects of this gap are clear with the housing crisis and increasing homelessness in the U.S.

There are many changes that are needed, and one of the ways to change this productivity gap is to bring automation and modern materials into the residential construction process. I believe that the technology that Blokable is bringing into the construction process will bring real estate developers a new set of tools so that they can build quality projects faster and with less risk.

Do you think prefab will eventually usurp traditional methods? If so, how long do you think that will take?

I believe that the industry will see the two methodologies meld together, taking the best from each where necessary. But, I do think that we have yet to reach a tipping point where modular/prefab houses are the defacto standard for a residential project. In order for us as an industry to meet that tipping point, we need to have many more projects delivered on time, under budget, and with high quality across the board. Right now, real estate developers are waiting for the modular world to mature and deliver consistent results before taking the leap. It’s a risk-averse industry, and change is risky. We need to change the story by getting more high quality built units on the ground so that “modular = less risk always.”

What do you think about 3D printing for construction? Do you think it will augment prefab or compete with it?

3D printing and prefab construction can definitely go hand-in-hand. At Blokable, we are using 3D printers as a way to simplify our supply chain, reduce waste, and allow flexibility in our designs. As 3D printing becomes cheaper and expands to all variety of materials, we’ll be seeing a lot more 3D printed components in residential construction whether the printer itself is onsite or in a factory. Apis Cor recently 3D-printed all of the walls of a project onsite using concrete in one day in Russia.

Who are some other industry leaders that you have your eye on/think are doing cool things?

I’m looking outside of the construction industry for inspiration. I’m looking for companies who transformed their industries by turning expectation on its head and also industry leaders in manufacturing. The easiest parallels are Tesla for their product innovation and Boeing for their manufacturing efficiency.

Outside of prefab, what technologies do you think will shape the construction industry in the future?

I think that simplification of communication technology tools will be necessary for construction to overcome the productivity gap. If we could simplify and even automate the process of getting permits, passing inspections, and communicating within the varying subcontractor disciplines, we could unlock many gains in the industry.

Interested in the future of construction?

Unearth's blog explores the technologies building the future of critical infrastructure. To stay up-to-date on innovation, check out our pieces on digital twin technology, cybersecurity, drones, or GIS.

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