3D printing: could it solve the housing crisis?

Despite signs of progress, 3D-printing technology has yet to realise its full potential in the housebuilding sector – so what is holding it back? 

Following this year’s Autumn Budget announcement, it is clear that the Government has set its sights on alleviating the current housing crisis. At least £44 billion has been allocated to capital funding, loans and guarantees to support the UK’s housing market over the next five years. The Government has also pledged to provide an average of 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s. While this is an important step, it may also be time to invest in the development of innovative methods of construction, such as 3D printing. The question is, how viable is this emerging technology and could it become a mass-market alternative to traditional construction methods?

3D printing or additive manufacturing was, until recently, considered an expensive processing method, which was only viable in a relatively small number of industrial applications. This is partly because the majority of patents used to protect 3D-printing technology in recent times were held by the American company, Stratasys; barring opportunities for other innovators to develop it further. Some of the most essential patents expired in 2013 and 2014, however, prompting a surge in new patent applications and entrepreneurial businesses using 3D-printing technology more widely.

One of these newcomers is Apis Cor, established in 2014. The business has recently demonstrated its capabilities by 3D printing an entire house onsite within 24 hours close to Moscow in Russia.  The entire envelope of the building was printed onsite using layers of concrete mix, deposited one on top of the other by an automatic nozzle. The windows, roof, piping, and all other elements were then added manually. On completion of the envelope, the printer, which weighs two tonnes, was lifted from the structure by a crane manipulator.

While such rapid construction methods might seem like the perfect way to address the housing shortage, there are still a number of important barriers to overcome before 3D printing can become the modern construction method of choice. Apis Cor is currently one of only a handful of firms, alongside organisations such as Facit Homes in London and the French company, Nantes Métropole Habitat, to have constructed homes onsite using 3D-printing technology, although human labour has also had a critical role in these projects.

Despite progress being made, there is still a need to demonstrate that the technology can be used in a way that balances cost, time and quality. Modern 3D printers tend to be much bigger than earlier versions and can produce a wider range of bespoke parts insitu, but timing and cost is still an issue compared to some other technologies, such as laser centreing for example.

The 3D-printed homes built to date are also relatively basic structures; more bespoke designs may still be out of reach without costs and construction time rising exponentially. There is also the issue of planning permission, which can be difficult to obtain when applying innovative processing methods.

Whilst barriers to the take up of 3D-printing technology remain, progress is being made. In fact, the more innovation that is done in the field, the more likely it is that further breakthroughs can be achieved. One of the most vital things for entrepreneurs to consider when innovating in fields such as this, is the potential for securing intellectual property rights. As long as an invention or service is backed by a novel technical effect, then obtaining patent protection could be a way to secure exclusivity, tax relief and other associated benefits.

A search for patent families related to 3D printing in construction has revealed there are currently only 258 worldwide, compared to about 10,000 in other technological sectors. This indicates that the application of 3D printing in the construction industry is still very early stage. Apis Cor’s first patent application (WO2017/209786) for a 3D-printing technology was published on 7 December 2017. The patent application relates to the printer itself and the crane system which it operates on.

Clearly, the relatively low number of existing patents related to the use of 3D-printing technology in the construction sector means there is an opportunity for innovators. New developments in 3D-printing machinery for construction purposes can, of course, be protected by patents. However, it is equally important for designers who use commercially-available machinery to form new architecture to protect their intellectual property, and monitor for the sharing of CAD files, which are typically used to store design information in a format that can be easily copied. The nature of 3D-printed structures means designs can also be scanned and copied by a visitor to the building site. Once stored onto a CAD file, they can then be shared widely via a popular file-sharing platform, such as Thingiverse, and reprinted by anyone with access to a suitable 3D printer. To guard against this, design innovators should consider filing for registered design rights, which protect the appearance of their creation.

As the use of 3D printing in construction continues to expand, it is becoming a more viable proposition for mainstream housing developments. Consequently, intellectual property protection will have an important role to play in helping companies to commercialise their R&D investment in this emerging market. Businesses that want to capitalise on this opportunity should seek advice at an early stage to optimise profits and re-investment opportunities whilst helping to modernise and transform the construction industry.

By David McWilliams, partner and Frank Harner, associate at intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers. Both are patent attorneys who specialise in advising businesses about how to protect their construction-related innovations.