Bespoke designs, community factories and the rise of the citizen builder

Autodesk’s head of thought leadership for construction, energy, natural resources, Dominic Thasarathar, says bespoke designs and the development of small local factories are possible if digital processes such as 3D printing take off.

Prefabrication isn’t anything new, but it is becoming easier. Advanced modelling technology is enabling contractors to work both from the bottom-up to use standardised elements for buildings and infrastructure, and from the top-down to split an inherited design into elements that might be prefabricated offsite, then assembled onsite.

Once the preserve of relatively modest assets, prefabrication is now scalable, and has the potential to help the industry achieve a high degree of standardisation – a cornerstone in unlocking manufacturing-style productivity levels.

Buildings could be manufactured in low-cost execution centres, then shipped around the world for final assembly, providing significant implications for the competitive landscape in construction.

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But standardisation isn’t appropriate for every project, or every component. The new industrial revolution in manufacturing is rewriting the process of going from a great design for an item to a finished real-world artefact.

At the vanguard of this revolution is digital fabrication, and in particular, 3D printing. Today, it is possible to go directly from a 3D model of an item to a finished real-world object in a single touch, with a single machine, without having to retool, and with more than 80 different types of material – be it steel, glass, ceramic, polymer, concrete and more.

This is transforming the modern manufacturing paradigm that has been with us for more than a hundred years. To date, it’s been cheaper to buy a standard off-the-shelf component than have a bespoke item made, because “complexity and uniqueness” have been expensive traits in manufacturing.

With 3D printing, “complexity and uniqueness” are essentially free. Freed from the constraints of standard components, contractors can focus on the ideal solutions for projects, and then deliver those solutions with minimal waste.

Could we soon see 3D printers on jobsites undertaking direct construction activities? Possibly. But perhaps we’ll see something else happening instead: Micro-factories are starting to follow in the wake of the democratisation of manufacturing technology – relatively small, neighbourhood facilities equipped with digital fabrication machines, that are able to produce items, regardless of complexity.

These micro-factories have the potential to significantly disrupt the traditional construction supply chain, which for the last 30 years has taken advantage of reduced trade barriers and transportation costs to source all the building products and related components that go into projects.

If so, we could see the rise of the citizen builder, where community factories become a key component in the supply-chain, local to the project site – reducing transportation costs and upholding localism.

Image: SOM’s AMIE 1.0 pavilion in Tennessee is the world’s largest 3D-printed polymer structure, assembled from 3D-printed panels that act as exterior cladding and provide structural support, insulation and moisture protection.

With 3D printing, ‘complexity and uniqueness’ are essentially free. Freed from the constraints of standard components, contractors can focus on the ideal solutions for projects, and then deliver those solutions with minimal waste.– Dominic Thasarathar, Autodesk

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