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Construction has always been an industry on the frontiers of technology: at least historically. But the industry has been taking a bit of a back seat recently, given the enormous digital disruptions happening in the rest of the economy. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been progress - but it’s been more of the evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, kind.
Now though, all that might be about to change. Over the last few years, groups all over the world have been experimenting with new technologies to make building faster and cheaper. A team from a UK University built the world’s first 3D printed bridge back in February, and last month a Russian company showcased a house that it has printed out all in one go - wiring and all - which costs less than $10,000 and takes 24 hours to build.
Why is all this happening now? For years, the construction industry has been making marginal improvements to its processes. But without digital technology, cranes and workers could only work so fast. In other words, the industry was bumping up against hard limits as to what was feasible. Companies had to do all the regular things, like buy red diesel for their generators, train their workers to be safe on the work site, and manage dozens of suppliers. New technology, is speeding things up dramatically and fundamentally changing the way the business works.
We’re unlikely to see the adoption of digital construction practices overnight. But now that the technology is demonstrated, it’s going to be hard for firms to ignore the cost advantage. One of the major costs in the construction industry is the cost of labor. But 3D printed buildings barely require any labor to construct. All that is really required on site is a technician to make sure that the machine is operating properly.
The other cool possibility of 3D printed homes is dramatically increased personalisation. No longer will homes need to be constructed with set floor plans to save on costs. Now people looking to buy a new home will be able to pick and choose from hundreds, possibly thousands of designs - or get an architect to come up with something totally unique.
Businesses are going to profit too. Right now, one of the biggest costs for expanding businesses is the price of warehousing. It’s just very expensive. But if the price of building a warehouse goes down, thanks to 3D printing, then the amount of space that companies offer will increase, reducing costs.
In many ways, construction has to go high-tech. With average incomes so flat, people are crying out for affordable housing, not rents that rise every year and ever-bigger mortgages. This new technology has the power to bring the price of housing down by adding lots of extra supply to the market. The people who already own homes probably won’t be best pleased by this, but it is unlikely that people will be able to determine what exactly is causing the price of their home to fall. They may just chalk it up to economic conditions when really it is the impact of new technology.
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