Click, Save, Print: 3D printing our way to more resilient infrastructure

12 Aug 2021, Posted in All Posts, Blog Posts

When 3D printing first became popular with the general public in the early 2000s, there was absolutely no limit on what it could do. People wanted to print new gadget prototypes, food, even human organs. One stone that was left unturned for too long however, was 3D printing for infrastructure. Printing trinkets is all good and fun, but the chance of being able to print houses and buildings is one too inspiring to pass up.

The first recognized use of 3D printing for construction was in 2004, when a professor attempted to print a wall. Things quickly speed up after that, resulting in an Amsterdam canalhouse, a Chinese mansion, and an office in Dubai. The 3D printing industry has come a long way from its humble roots in the 1980s, but it is only getting started.

3D printing has too many benefits to be ignored. According to Sculpteo, a French 3D printing company, the benefits to using 3D printing for infrastructure include fast production, almost zero material waste, extreme cost-effectiveness, and wild, innovative design potential.

Think of it this way: with 3D printing, you can control exactly how much material you need when building a house. You can design it with as much or as little as you want, and print out only that. Therefore, you are not wasting material that otherwise you would have had to trim down and then be left with excess. That way, money is also not needlessly spent, as you only print exactly what the project entails. This also lets people dream big with their projects. Using special software, you can plan out however you want the project to look like and see if it will actually work out. So this could give way to the next Frank Loyd Wright… but more technologically advanced.

Sculpteo also offers more ethical infrastructure reasons for 3D printing. Being able to 3D print buildings means that towns could be rebuilt very quickly after natural disasters. It could also provide a solution to the homeless population.

One of 3D printing’s main boasts is its effectiveness with (processing) concrete. The Digital Builder, a daily construction blog, projects that the 3D printing concrete market is valued at about $56.4 million in 2021, something that would have been unheard of only a few years ago. Specify Concrete emphasizes that 3D concrete is built on layers upon layers of the certain mixtures of concrete. Those certain mixtures pass easier through the printer. Because of how it is structured, the need for molds or framework is no longer necessary, reducing the materials and cost even more.

To go even further, NASA has been debating using 3D printing to build a spaced-based construction system. Hopefully by the end of the decade, NASA reports, there will be a lunar terrain vehicle, habitable mobility platform, and a surface habitat on the moon. These predictions are truly out of this world!

Where 3D printing crosses with infrastructure, public policy will be naturally implicated. It is important that safety and reliability can be proven before daily traffic begins crossing roads and bridges printed by a machine. But equally important is that local, state, and federal governments remain open to these technologies and allow competitive bids for infrastructure projects from non-traditional builders. To the extent policy supports and encourages research and development, 3D printing for infrastructure may be a foundational piece in the solution to infrastructure resilience and rebuilding much of the nation’s existing assets.


By Emma Smith, Communications Intern


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.