3D printed Infrastructure provides the opportunity for material efficiency, construction speed and accuracy, and increased safety. Every disruption and innovation must be done properly to respond to labor, and societal understandings, and propel design forward. As such, 3D printed infrastructure must be strategic and reflective of societal improvement—not just continued capital acquisition. 

With the rise of commercially viable 3D printing at the beginning of the 21st century it has become a democratized tool that people have hacked and reworked at various scales allowing them to computational model complex designs, determine tool paths, and extrude material via robots with high level of precision in specific three-dimensional space to realize projects (Alexandra, 2020).  Architects and designers have become project managers as they have been separated from the work they design. The disruption that 3D printing offers the construction industry aligns planning and design with the final product. This engages designers with the process and construction as designers must understand materials and methods. This is seen with the growing number of material explorations, projects, and areas of utilization which 3D printed infrastructure has been expanding into.

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3D Printing Farm_©https://blog.prusa3d.com/a-quick-look-to-our-printing-farm_7474/

Material Possibilities

3D printing doesn’t necessarily dictate what material may be used. While typically utilizing materials that can be extruded, successful 3D printing materials offer a liquid or viscous working state that hardens or binds with itself following extrusion. This allows for the material to flow fluidly through the machine and not get stuck, but adhere to the desired design specifications. Initially conceived via thermoplastics, acting similarly to a hot glue gun, viable materials have widely expanded utilizing ceramics, fiber-reinforced composites, concrete mixtures, metal, and biomaterials such as plant-based plastics, lignin mixtures, and mycelium substrate mixtures (Iftekar et al., 2023). 

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3D Printing of HANNAH’s House of Cores_©Anthony Vu and Nana Iso

The most tested within the 3D printed infrastructure context include metal and concrete—for their durability and immediate analogous within the existing construction infrastructure industry —resulting in quicker institutionalizing and less skepticism with performance capability. 

3D printing offers the opportunity to reintroduce the world to materials lost due to labor-intensive practices and modernization push for efficient materials. This can be seen in the realized and fantasized projects of Ronald Rael and Emerging Objects. They have expanded consciousness and technological possibilities using adobe and 3D printed infrastructure. Ronald Rael and Emerging Objects have constructed a series of bungalows in Casa Covida with a 3-axis robot (Casa Covida | Emerging Objects, n.d.).

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Casa Covida Interior_©Elliot Ross and Emerging Objects

Ronald Rael has also explored an expanding universe of adobe “muddy architecture” in larger-scale projects via AI imagery on his Instagram.

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Midjourney Created Muddy Architecture Building Future_©Ronald Rael

Housing: Scaling Up

As a tool for housing, 3D printing increases the speed and affordability of housing, and additionally offers an opportunity for construction that is cleaner and less wasteful (Morrison, 2024). 3D printing is a solution for large-scale affordable housing and bespoke design solutions.

3D printed infrastructure for housing sees the deployment of a gantry system on site which pours concrete layer by layer—taking as little as 40 hours. This constructs structurally supported walls that are energy-efficient, well insulated, and have a low risk of burning or being blown down—leading to lower costs both in construction and operational usage than typical wood-framed housing (Morrison, 2024).

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Combating Affordable Housing Crisis with 3D Printing_©Lennar/Icon

In addition to single-family housing, 3D printed infrastructure solutions for housing can be seen in PERI 3D Construction’s completion of a three-story, six-apartment social housing project (Symonenko, 2023). This demonstrates the potential for 3D printing as an infrastructure solution for housing at a mass scale.

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3 Story Public Housing Apartment_©Peri 3D Construction

3D printing offers bespoke design solutions, such as in HANNAH’s two-story home which, with its rapid design-production capabilities offers quick and wide-ranging opportunities to fulfill homeowners’ needs and integrate them with building systems (Hickman, 2022). 

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Detail view of 3D-printed concrete elements_©Anthony Vu

Bridging: Today and Tomorrow

Considering the viable materials to use, bridges, offer a fantastic opportunity for implementing 3D printed infrastructure. Utilizing six-axis robots that weld stainless steel rods, Joris Laarman and robotics company MX3D, designed and constructed a 12-meter pedestrian bridge in Amsterdam. Utilizing 4,500 kilograms of stainless steel, the robots constructed the bridge in a factory in six months, after which, it was craned into position (Dezeen, 2021). 

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Bridge is located in the Red Light District of Amsterdam_©Dezeen

While lauded for its design and technological innovations, as well as reduced manufacturing cost due to parts and transportation carbon usage, some are weary of it as a solution as the stainless steel they chose as the primary building material is equivalent to 27.7 tonnes of embodied carbon—all to span a few meters (Dezeen, 2021). This critique of the project begins to highlight that many major questions linger within 3D printed infrastructure solutions, such as whether this is a productive innovation or just a fad.

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Bridge Detail with Perforated Balustrades_©Jande Groen

Prefabrication: Unitized and Streamlined

While we may fantasize the image of a construction site inhabited by automated six-axis robots, or supersized gantries that mimic table-top 3D printers, it is most likely that 3D printed infrastructure will occur in warehouses. These operations will produce pre-fabricated modules that can be erected on-site. This is in response to maintaining controlled conditions, reducing the need for skilled engineers and technicians to commute between different building sites, and centralizing material consumption rather than repeatedly resolving its logistical requirements.

Prefabrication allows for designs to be realized through the 3D printing of units. This can be seen in the work of the Digital Building Technology Lab at ETH Zurich which is constructing a 30-meter tall 3d-printed tower as an ascending spiral staircase with colonnades that offer space for art installations and music and theater performances for the Fundaziun Origen (designboom, 2024).

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Tor Alva for Fundaziun Origen_©DPT ETH Zurich Lab

The 3d printing of this tower reduces the need for formwork and offers greater design freedom, reflecting the design expression techniques that come with 3d printing.

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3D Printing of Column Parts_©DPT ETH Zurich Lab

In addition to design solutions, 3D printed infrastructure in prefabrication offers clear and direct benefits for energy infrastructure solutions. This is depicted by Iberdrola, a Spanish electricity and natural gas company, that utilizes 3d printed foundations from Hyperion Robotics for their new green energy transmission networks. These prefabricated units allow for less material usage, embedded connections, and energy infrastructure connections—enabling the energy network to function in a modular system (P, 2022).

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Iberdrola Green Energy Infrastructure_©(P, 2022)

3D Printing the Green Revolution

In an alternative development of 3D printed Infrastructure that utilizes prefabrication, the world saw the first 3D-concrete-printed bridge without reinforcement in 2021 at the Venice Biennale. This project, a collaboration between Block Research Group (BRG) and Zaha Hadid Architects, utilized pre-manufactured 3d printed blocks that were dry fitted together in pure compression (designboom and yasmina karam I., 2021). This creates load-bearing concrete structures that require fewer materials—demonstrating that when used as a part of a system 3D printed infrastructure can be more sustainable than traditional methods.

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Striatus Installation at 2021 Venice Biennale_©Naaro

Further innovations allow 3D printing to become even more sustainable, such as the follow-up project to Striatus, aptly named Phoenix. Phoenix was built using a concrete ink that binds recycled concrete together. A new bridge was designed and fabricated using just 50% of the material typical bridges of the same performance would demand (Zaha Hadid Architects, 2024).

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Phoenix in View at Final Installation_©Alessandro Dell’Endice

This demonstrates that when employed with other developing technologies, 3d printed infrastructure can represent an innovation and a sustainable linchpin to propel a green industrial revolution.

When We No Longer Build Our Buildings

3D printed infrastructure has long been a concern to those working within the construction industry—concerned that the same automation that saw the loss of automotive jobs will disrupt construction. McKinsey & Company predicts that 45% of the industry is ripe for disruptive innovation, like 3D printing, in the next 15 years. 3D printed infrastructure is by large still at the stage of testing, and sites of complete automation are even further away as it is unlikely that more than 10-12% of the activities required within construction will be able to make this shift (Erlich, 2023). This demonstrates, that by large, human labor will always be needed, and if workers and society collectively state and take actions that underscore this sentiment, 3D printing within construction and infrastructure may just represent another tool to the trades worker. Just as construction workers have had to adapt to be mechanics—to repair and use mechanical tools—the construction workers of the future will also need to be “the video game guy” (Erlich, 2023).

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Human and Robot Collaboration on Construction Sites_©https://blog.bluebeam.com/robots-construction-jobs/

3D printed infrastructure is an outcome of the continued battle of innovation within construction, which is undeniably exciting It will be the role of humans, and more particularly designers, to dictate what that infrastructure’s role is and how 3D printing will perform. Will it enable us to widen our material uses? Will it make us more sustainable? Will it enable greater access to housing? Will it allow for a wider range of job opportunities? Designers and stakeholders must integrate these tools with existing frameworks to ensure 3D printed infrastructure will provide a step forward for construction and not just act as a fad. 


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Ronald Rael (2024) Ronald Rael on Instagram: ‘Terrano demonstrates capacity to move into remote environments to build walls and roof using only the ground itself as a low impact method of construction. This is Terrano as seen from above. #3dprinting a roof has rarely been attempted, but this is the first time a roof has been #3dprinted in-Situ and the first to be made of raw earth. #muddyrobots #emergingobjects @barrakd #sanluisvalley #colorado #eartharchitecture #landart #dataclay @emergingobjects #digitalart’. Available at: https://www.instagram.com/reel/C0iJmIGpz84/ (accessed 23 March 2024).

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Andrew Boghossian is a designer and researcher who graduated from Cornell University in 2023 with a Bachelors of Architecture with a concentration in architectural science and technology, as well as a minor in Urban and Regional Studies. He has worked in historic preservation, architectural design, and building deconstruction and salvage.