According to the World Economic Forum, Dubai wants 25% of every new building to be 3D printed within the next seven years. The Dubai Future Foundation, an organization dedicated to making the metropolis a tech hub for the Middle East, believes that the move will reduce human construction labor by 70% and cut building costs by 90%. But given the current experimental state of 3D printing technologies for construction, the aspiration is wildly ambitious—if not laughably so.
“In 2025, based on Dubai Municipality’s regulations, every new building in Dubai will be 25% 3D printed,” the Foundation explains. “This move will start from 2019, starting at 2% with a gradual increase to the strategic goal.” The initiative will focus on the construction industry’s printing of “lighting products, bases, and foundations, construction joints, facilities, and parks, buildings for humanitarian causes, and mobile homes.”
The United Arab Emirates has a serious problem with the exploitation of migrant labor in its construction industry, with watchdog groups describing widespread human rights abuses and practical slavery as the norm in the industry. So the idea of using printers to replace human labor done under deplorable conditions at the risk of life and limb isn’t necessarily a bad one. 3D printing’s champions argue that it could also be more sustainable and more efficient than traditional construction, with a smaller carbon footprint (though some dispute that, too).
The question is whether this is doable at all. While 3D printing is gaining ubiquity in real-life situations, it’s still uncertain how far we are from the technology being regularly used in the mass production of small buildings like homes, let alone skyscrapers. While walls, ceilings, and even structural parts can now be manufactured with industrial printers, these are still far from that 70% labor reduction and the 80% building cost cuts Dubai is aiming for.
Companies like New Story are making 3D printing more accessible, with a house that can be printed in a day for about $4,000. Meanwhile, Chinese construction company Winsun is pushing the use of large-scale 3D printers rapidly, making headlines in 2014 for 3D printing 10 complete houses in a day. The company also 3D printed an office building for the Dubai Future Foundation, and it seems to be collaborating with the organization in advancing toward its 2025 goal.
Despite these still-evolving projects, there are still hurdles that construction companies using 3D printers will need to overcome before it can be called a mature technology capable of building structures with the click of a button, a CAD file, and some robots. We’re still very far away from a future in which a large group of robots will autonomously build a complex building on their own, according to a report from the global consulting firm BCG. A more realistic vision, the firm claims, “involves retaining several separate procedures and autonomous and semi-autonomous systems . . . integrating them with human workers.”
That may be why Dubai and its Future Foundation aren’t aiming for completely 3D printed buildings, but rather the inclusion of 3D printed sections in all new buildings. Still, it remains to be seen how this will affect the lives of the people who support this megalopolis. A less cynical person would suggest such tech could raise the standard of living for migrant workers–but judging on the city’s past treatment of construction laborers, I doubt it.