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Building Blocks: Winsun’s Application of 3D Printing in the Construction Industry

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Additive manufacturing is poised to disrupt the construction industry with firms like Winsun successfully building 3D printed buildings. 3D construction is both more efficient and less costly than traditional construction methods.

Unlike many industries, a construction site today looks very similar to a construction site 50 years ago.[i] Construction is an industry that has been slow to adapt and innovate but recent developments in additive manufacturing may be changing that. Historically, additive manufacturing (3D printing) has been used at the front end of the construction process with architects and engineers utilizing the technology to quickly build models and prototypes.[ii] Due to continued technology advancements, now 3D printing is reaching the actual construction site. In 2018, there were 65 3D printing related startups offering solutions related to prototyping, software and design, and buildings.[iii] One of these companies that has made significant strides with 3D printing in the construction industry is Winsun.

Winsun is a Chinese firm, founded in 2003, that started as a developer of advanced building materials and now holds more than 125 patents. [iv] It has developed the capability to apply additive manufacturing to building construction. In 2014, Winsun built 10 single-room houses in under 24 hours for approximately $4,800 each and has continued to innovate by constructing a five-story apartment building and a 11,840 square foot house in 2015.[v]  Winsun’s construction process includes creating a CAD drawing of a building, which it then prints in pieces at its factory. [vi] Those pieces are then sent to the construction site and assembled.[vii]

The continued evolution of 3D printing is significant because it positions Winsun to potentially disrupt and solve inefficiencies in the construction industry. Traditional construction approaches have low productivity and a high material cost.[viii] WinSun’s approach is less expensive, takes less time than traditional approaches, and is more environmentally friendly.[ix] For example, to construct a cinder-block house takes 15 days and ~$6,500 while a pre-fabricated 3D printed home takes 24 hours and costs ~$4,000.[x] To illustrate the speed of the 3D construction process, the 11,840 square foot house Winsun built took one day of printing, two days of assembly and only required three workmen.[xi] This is significant because labor typically accounts for 15 – 50% of total construction costs.[xii] Additionally, additive manufacturing uses 30 – 50% less material relative to traditional construction and uses recycled construction waste in its “ink.” [xiii] Winsun’s 3D printing approach helps make “housing affordable, accessible, and customized by and for the masses” and positions the business to benefit from the macro trends of rapid urbanization, housing shortages, and climate change.[xiv]

To promote awareness and the adoption of 3D printing, Winsun is focused on promoting education, developing partnerships, and shaping regulatory development. WinSun has produced multiple prototypes and invited industry skeptics to visit its factory to learn more about the technology. It also is collaborating with architecture firms, like the Cornell Design Institute and the Tongii Design Institute, to educate these key players on the uses of 3D printed design and encourage its use. Given the nascent stage of 3D printing in construction, there is little applicable regulation but despite this, Winsun builds structures that are compliant with existing building codes. The firm is focused on influencing the regulatory landscape as it continues to evolve and has worked closely with China’s national construction department. Winsun is also being selective in which markets it enters outside of China. It is looking to target Germany as well as Australia and the Middle East. Germany is a strong opportunity because the country has a strong focus on environmental standards and has an abundance of recycled construction waste. Additionally, Winsun recently announced that it will lease 100 3D printers to a Saudi Arabian construction company as the country intends to use 3D printing to reduce its housing deficit and Dubai has publicly stated that it wants 3D printing to be 25% of its construction by 2030.[xv] [xvi]

While Winsun is taking proactive measures to promote education and adoption of 3D printing in the construction industry, I think that they should continue to work with regulators to revise building codes, so the code is more relevant to today’s construction standards and incorporates 3D printing. I think that Winsun should continue to produce prototypes and encourage engineers and architects to study and analyze the prototypes and in order to stay at the forefront of innovation, Winsun should focus on developing onsite printing capabilities. This would lessen the transportation costs associated with moving the pieces from the factory to the building site.

Despite the progress achieved to-date in educating the construction industry and producing successful 3D printed prototypes, the technology still has a long way to go to significantly disrupt the construction industry and gain wide adoption. The outstanding questions surrounding 3D printing of construction materials include how companies should use the technology and if the technology will become the future of construction or just a complement to current construction methods.

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[i] Boston Consulting Group, “Winsun Demonstrating the Viability of 3D Printing at Construction Scale,” World Economic Forum, https://futureofconstruction.org/case/winsun/, accessed November 2018

[ii] Victoria Richardson, “3D Printing Becomes Concrete: Exploring the Structural Potential of Concrete 3D Printing,” The Structural Engineer, October 2017, https://www.istructe.org/getattachment/4df9a3e5-8809-4c6c-b770-071bc144262e/Pai-Lin-Li-Award.pdf, accessed November 2018.

[iii] de Laubier, Romain, “Will 3D Printing Remodel the Construction Industry?,” BCG, January 23, 2018, https://www.bcg.com/en-us/publications/2018/will-3d-printing-remodel-construction-industry.aspx, accessed November 2018.

[iv] de Laubier, Romain, “Will 3D Printing Remodel the Construction Industry?,” BCG, January 23, 2018, https://www.bcg.com/en-us/publications/2018/will-3d-printing-remodel-construction-industry.aspx, accessed November 2018.

[v] Massie, Caroline, “China’s Winsun Unveils Two New 3D Printed Buildings,” Architect Magazine, January 28, 2015. https://www.architectmagazine.com/technology/chinas-winsun-unveils-two-new-3d-printed-buildings_o, accessed November 2018

[vi] Massie, Caroline, “China’s Winsun Unveils Two New 3D Printed Buildings,” Architect Magazine, January 28, 2015. https://www.architectmagazine.com/technology/chinas-winsun-unveils-two-new-3d-printed-buildings_o, accessed November 2018

[vii] Massie, Caroline, “China’s Winsun Unveils Two New 3D Printed Buildings,” Architect Magazine, January 28, 2015. https://www.architectmagazine.com/technology/chinas-winsun-unveils-two-new-3d-printed-buildings_o, accessed November 2018

[viii] Boston Consulting Group, “Winsun Demonstrating the Viability of 3D Printing at Construction Scale,” World Economic Forum, https://futureofconstruction.org/case/winsun/, accessed November 2018

[ix] Boston Consulting Group, “Winsun Demonstrating the Viability of 3D Printing at Construction Scale,” World Economic Forum, https://futureofconstruction.org/case/winsun/, accessed November 2018

[x] Mims, C. (2018, Apr 01). 3-D printed buildings are a tech twist on ancient construction techniques; 3-D printed buildings are finally happening, in concrete jail cells, foam homeless shelters and earthquake-proof bungalows. Wall Street Journal (Online) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/2020273112?accountid=11311

[xi] Boston Consulting Group, “Winsun Demonstrating the Viability of 3D Printing at Construction Scale,” World Economic Forum, https://futureofconstruction.org/case/winsun/, accessed November 2018

[xii] Victoria Richardson, “3D Printing Becomes Concrete: Exploring the Structural Potential of Concrete 3D Printing,” The Structural Engineer, October 2017, https://www.istructe.org/getattachment/4df9a3e5-8809-4c6c-b770-071bc144262e/Pai-Lin-Li-Award.pdf, accessed November 2018.

[xiii] Victoria Richardson, “3D Printing Becomes Concrete: Exploring the Structural Potential of Concrete 3D Printing,” The Structural Engineer, October 2017, https://www.istructe.org/getattachment/4df9a3e5-8809-4c6c-b770-071bc144262e/Pai-Lin-Li-Award.pdf, accessed November 2018.

[xiv] Massie, Caroline, “China’s Winsun Unveils Two New 3D Printed Buildings,” Architect Magazine, January 28, 2015. https://www.architectmagazine.com/technology/chinas-winsun-unveils-two-new-3d-printed-buildings_o, accessed November 2018

[xv] Boston Consulting Group, “Winsun Demonstrating the Viability of 3D Printing at Construction Scale,” World Economic Forum, https://futureofconstruction.org/case/winsun/, accessed November 2018

[xvi] Clarke, Corey, “Winsun to Lease Concrete 3D Printers to Saudi Arabia in ‘Billion Dollar’ Construction Deal,” 3D Printing Industry, March 21, 2017. https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/winsun-lease-concrete-3d-printers-saudi-arabia-billion-dollar-constuction-deal-108715/, accessed November 2018

8 thoughts on “Building Blocks: Winsun’s Application of 3D Printing in the Construction Industry

  1. This is an interesting and progressive application of 3D printing – thank you for sharing. I agree with you that 3D printing has it’s merits when it comes to resources, cost and time. However, it has it’s drawbacks when it comes to scaling to mass production at low cost. I think Winsun is moving in the right direction by engaging with regulators and partnering with other countries. Re: your question of whether 3D printing will completely disrupt the construction industry or complement existing methods — I think the world would benefit either way. It doesn’t necessarily have to disrupt the industry. By complementing existing processes, it still has huge advantages that could help a number of developing countries. Thanks!

  2. ST – thank you for writing about such an interesting topic! I was completely unaware of 3D printing in the construction space, and this has raised so many questions in my mind as to how it would be implemented and what scale is achievable. Is 3D printing in construction primarily applicable to developing economies with less complex construction needs (piping, electronics)? What types of materials can be used in the 3D printing and is it flexible enough to work in all climates (rainy vs wet, hot vs cold)? Would this be more helpful in urban environments due to the current need for shipping the pre-assembly pieces, or more helpful in rural environments where construction materials and talent are in shorter supply? I look forward to watching this early-stage industry develop and find answers to these questions!

  3. I think the technological hurdle a company like Winsun faces is higher than many others. Chinese construction companies are already under extreme levels of scrutiny from regulators, the government and the public for having taken serious shortcuts that, in many instances, have resulted in catastrophic consequences. Winsun will need to ensure the fool-proof nature of its technology before it will be able to roll it out more broadly. This is difficult for a young company to do, given the investment developing AM technology requires. Hopefully, the investors in Winsun are mindful of the long-term nature of the company’s aspirations and are generous enough to support the company through even more stages of R&D, prototyping, customer development, public trust building and most importantly, wider commercialization.

  4. Thank you so much for this very interesting read! I learned so much. To me one of the biggest hurdles in adopting 3D printing technology to construction is the potentially high barrier for change. Construction is an industry that has existed forever and while I’d imagine there have been a lot of technological advancements made, I still see many aspects of it that have remained largely unchanged. Secondly, I do also wonder if this technology will scale big enough to disrupt the entire industry or possibly just lower costs and ease the process around manufacturing parts needed for construction, etc. I look forward to reading more about this!

  5. Thank you for this interesting article! I wonder how Am can prove itself cost efficient versus manufacturing process, given the absence of economy of scale? I believe that another limit of this technology may be its durability. As time goes, construction technology becomes more and more advanced but the averaged useful life of houses keep reducing. Therefore one could wonder if this solution is really cost effective once we take into account the duration until experimentation proves that the quality of the construction is guaranteed over a similar length of time. This is obviously all the more crucial than there are significant safety issues at stake.

  6. Thank you for the fascinating article! In terms of scaling, I am interested to know the upfront cost of re-configuring the machine compared to the benefit (cost and time), to determine the number of houses required for a project to be worthwhile economically.

    In addition, it would be interesting to look at the impact on construction companies and workers – Winsun is cannibalising their business but still needs workers to assemble the 3D printed houses. I also question whether these workers need additional training to fit the 3D printed houses on site.

  7. Great choice of application of this very radical use of this technology. Given the challenges with regulators, coupled with highly entrenched companies, do you see that there are any barriers that will be impossible to overcome? Most notably, I am concerned with the large conglomerates with deep pockets to pay for lobbyists to command control of regulation.

    I do see this as a disruptive technology that should replace traditional construction in the long run. However, to enable more rapid adoption, I do see the benefit to making the practice more widely accepted by being a complementary component in the short run. The goal should be to make this more widely accepted, which will come by making it highly visible and economically unquestionable.

  8. What a fascinating topic to discuss. I feel like I have been hearing about 3D printing possibilities in construction for years, but it is still yet to be utilized to its full extent. Your question of whether this will be seen as a complement or as a disruptor gets right to the point. Complement seems like a quicker and more cost effective route. But would we be stopping short of the true potential? I look forward to seeing what happens with Winsuns recent deals. Perhaps these will be seen as proof of concept for the entire industry. How exciting!

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