Additive manufacturing as an enabling technology for digital construction: A perspective on Construction 4.0

This paper introduces the concept of Construction 4.0 and examines the digital transformation of the construction sector. The potential of additive manufacturing as a driver for innovation in construction that enables the fabrication of lightweight and functionally graded structures is presented and discussed.

Construction 4.0

The construction industry is adopting new technologies at a slow pace and has not yet been through the major disruptive digital transformation that other industries such as automotive or aeronautics have been through in the form of Industry 4.0. Industry 4.0 has greatly altered industry and production value chains and business models. As the construction industry faces the challenges of implementing digital technologies, intelligent machines, and smart materials, this transformation is taking place. Known as Construction 4.0, this transformation will bring about greater productivity, time-efficiency, and resource-efficiency while enhancing safety and quality.

Building information modelling (BIM) digitally integrates the aesthetic design and technical details of a construction project into one information package. BIM gives a digital prototype of the building to everyone involved in the construction, before it is built.  ArcelorMittal Europe is currently developing BIM objects for every one of its high added value steel products used in construction.

A greater level of digitalisation through BIM integrated with cloud computing technology will result in Cloud-BIM data that allows for easy access on mobile devices. This increased connectivity and access to the most up-to-date information will greatly improve productivity.

In the steel construction industry specifically, adaptive automation solutions such as arc welding robotic technology are already enhancing production. These welding robotic solutions can be fitted with laser cameras to further improve production quality and are capable of cutting complex geometries quickly without the need for finishing steps. Additionally, these robotic solutions are also being applied to steel cutting applications such as tubes, thick plates, and pipes resulting in greater efficiency.

The utilisation of IoT (Internet of Things) technology such as UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) also has the potential to transform the building industry. UAVs can be used for tracking construction projects and making quality assessments in addition to monitoring construction sites, masonry assembly, and carrying out some of the dangerous work that currently decreases site safety.

Overall, Construction 4.0 will enhance stakeholder collaboration, creativity, and strengthen the supply chain.

Additive manufacturing in construction

Additive Manufacturing (AM) is defined as “the process of joining materials to make objects from 3D model data, usually layer upon layer, as opposed to subtractive manufacturing methodologies, such as traditional machining ” (American Society for Testing and Materials standard).

AM processes are increasingly used in industrial applications due to their unique features such as eliminating the need for tooling and more economical custom product manufacturing. AM processes typically used in the construction industry are commonly extrusion-based processes (cement/ceramic paste and polymer-based materials), binder jetting processes, and the fusion of high melting point materials for both on-site and off-site fabrication of new construction elements or repairing applications.

As AM evolves, it is allowing architects and engineers to design more complex geometries. The main challenges and opportunities of this evolving technology in the construction sector are explored in depth in this paper.

Materials and lightweight and functionally graded structures

One of the ways in which AM is contributing to Construction 4.0 is as a platform for materials design. It allows for the use of natural and recyclable materials, which is conducive to a more sustainable construction approach.

As this paper points out, resource efficiency is fundamental as we move towards a more efficient construction sector. Lightweight structural components allow for a decrease in waste generation, emissions, and consumption.  Utilising the technologies describe in the paper will bring us one step closer to this global goal.

Moving forward

Construction 4.0 promises to increase construction productivity, quality, cost, and resource efficiency, all of which will require the adoption of technical innovations such as IoT, BIM, AM, and other digital systems.

Text: Constructalia
Photos and report: Flávio Craveiroa, José Pinto Duarte, Helena Bartolo, Paulo Jorge Bartolo