Dubai’s new 3D printed building might just set the stage for sweeping change across the construction landscape
By Ali Khaled
Photographs by Museum of the Future
Last week, a trailer for summer blockbuster Star Trek created a buzz on social media as it tantalizingly showcased some stunning glimpses of scenes shot in a futuristic city based in Dubai.
The makers of the latest installment in the legendary sci-fi franchise rendered CGI-enhanced images of the Burj Khalifa, Dubai International Financial District and Jumeirah Lakes Towers onto celluloid to conjure up an image of the future.
But on the same day, a small part of the future was unveiled in Dubai, and it was all very real; the 3D printed offices of the Dubai Future Foundation at the base of Emirates Towers.
The inspiration for the futuristic design came on April 26, when Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Dubai Ruler and UAE Prime Minister, announced the creation of the Dubai 3D Printing Strategy, targeting 25 percent of Dubai buildings to be 3D printed by the year 2030.
Incredibly, it had taken 17 days to be built and, after having the components delivered from China, two to assemble. It is the world’s first fully functional building of its kind.
“We announce today the opening of the first 3D-printed office in the world, after less than a month of launching Dubai’s 3D printing strategy which showcases a modern model of construction,” Sheikh Mohammed said at its unveiling. “This is an experience we present to the world on implementing future technology in our lives, and it represents a new milestone for the UAE as a global leader in strategic achievements.”
According to Saif Al Alili, CEO of Dubai Future Foundation, it’s a hugely significant step in transforming the landscape of the construction industry in the medium term, and the landscape of the city itself over the next three decades.
“It’s a plan that looks at making Dubai a city of the future,” he said. “It’s about how we can build Dubai in 2030, 2040 and 2050.”
Under this agenda, the Dubai Future Foundation has already set in motion a series of initiatives and a strategy that has been designed to craft an ambitious new day.
“By having the government take a leading position in terms of adopting emerging technologies, we will be able to create the right ecosystem,” Al Alili said. “We’ll have people who are working on developing the technology, and those eventually implementing the technology, like developers and contractors.”
The technology in its basic form has existed for several decades, but 3D printing has only come into its own in recent years with advances in the medical and construction sectors. In 2014, Chinese firm Winsun 3D printed 10 residential villas, and earlier this year a five-storey building. In only a few weeks, Dubai has leap-frogged the progress made elsewhere.
“It’s proof that Dubai walks the talk—and we are all about delivering,” Al Alili said. “What we wanted to do is prove that the technology works. It’s functional. We’ve heard about projects in some parts of the world. The difference here is that we have a functional model. It’s not just about making a 3D printed building, but a functional building by integrating the design and the printing process, integrating the MEP [mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems]—electricity, water and air conditioning.”
Gauntlet Laid—A Construction Shift
The 3D building is not just any building. The fact of its existence will have knock-on effects. The UAE is synonymous with large development projects and a construction industry that remains one of the country’s biggest revenue-generators.
“Why 3D printing? If you look at the technology it makes a lot of sense. Strategically we know the construction sector contributes drastically to our GDP,” Al Alili said. But he also knows that “3D will be taking over construction,” he added. “In five years, 10 years, the sky is the limit. It’s all about the maturity of the technology, which will respond to the demand in the market. The technology is coming.”
The success of 3D printing will depend on whether or not the traditional construction industry embraces this new technology. To help it along, the Dubai Future Foundation is clearly evangelizing as to its technological breakthrough—and ensuring that firms currently operating in the UAE take note of its merits. “We want those people who are working on conventional construction projects right now to be part of the game, to learn how exactly they can deal with the technology, how they can implement it,” Al Alili said. We want to create a model where all of the components of the projects are there.”
Adopting the new isn’t easy and detractors may find it challenging to adjust. “Everyone is learning, everyone is adopting the technology and this model can be exported to different subsectors within the construction industry,” he added. “Developers will learn, contractors will learn. This can be exported to other cities around the world where there are issues with cost of buildings [and] the availability of working force.”
The construction industry is notoriously resistant to change, but the economic viability of 3D printing could be a game-changer, not least in reducing the size of the workforce.
“With the huge number of labor[ers] in the market, we have demographic issues that we have to solve—and this is one of the issues we are focusing on,” Al Alili added.
“We know that the construction sector mostly attracts low-skilled laborers,” an issue he describes as a “challenge for us moving into a knowledge based economy. Based on our experience right now with the live project, we know we can save a lot in terms of labor required to complete development and construction projects.”
Al Alili believes that the inevitable shift will help the industry move towards a gradual rise in high skilled labor essential to other innovative sectors.
“There is always some sort of initial reluctance, but when you say this technology will save you in terms of building costs around 60 to 70 percent, no one would want to be out of this game” he said. “When you say that you will be saving in terms of laborers around 80 percent—the time of construction will be saved, you need less labor, it’s less costly and alongside all that, the government will be supporting with the right regulation,” becomes an attractive proposition.
“3D printing is one of the main elements and enablers towards breaching that knowledge based economy, not just in Dubai but also at UAE government level, how we can utilise the technology to solve this particular problem,” he said.
“It will give us the rationale to explore more, to invest more, to be the first adopters of the technology.”
“So yes, economically, we are building the case for this technology and we are trying to expedite that process by basically creating the demand. When we say that by 2030, Dubai will have 25 percent of its buildings 3D printed, we have already indicated to all the industry players that there is a market waiting for them. And we are going to do that in a gradual manner,” Al Alili added.
The days of fully 3D-printed functional towers are still some years away. However, starting from 2019, every new building in Dubai will have at least 2 percent of its overall makeup 3D printed.
“We are drafting a law right now jointly with Dubai Municipality,” Al Alili said. “The idea is to create a model in Dubai that will later be pushed at the federal level, and which can be shared with regional countries and the rest of the world.”
The Dubai Future Foundation CEO is confident companies will ultimately need little persuasion to join this revolution. It would make sound business practice at every level. “We are not compromising quality [or] the standards of having a reliable building [that is] safe in terms of its standards and components.”
Safety Is Paramount
Cost effectiveness may be the ultimate swaying factor for companies, but consumers will, at this early stage, justifiably have questions over the safety of this new technology. The UAE building code currently incorporates some of the highest safety factors in the world. Al Alili says that every precaution is being taken to ensure 3D structures will be just as safe, if not safer, than traditional concrete buildings.
“We will use a mixture of cement with special materials which will help the cement to cure faster. We’ve also added some steel elements for rebarring,” Al Alili assured. “Waterproofing and fire proofing safety aspects have been taken into consideration and this is where Dubai Municipality comes in. We are running tests on the materials and comparing them to what exists right now in conventional buildings, and see how they match up in criteria and specifications.
It’s been a steep learning curve for Al Alili and everyone else concerned; a “case study” from which the parties involved documented the project extensively, with Dubai Municipality, the regulatory authority, alongside every step of the process. Printing the building required not just great design, but a finely-tuned level of bureaucratic coordination. One example was the criterion for what material the building should be made of to match Dubai’s existing building codes. It is the task of local authorities to put in place a regulatory framework to oversee the whole 3D industry within the construction sector.
“We have another pilot project for a residential unit,” Al Alili said. “It will be a joint project between a Dubai-based company and Dubai Municipality because we want them as regulators to be involved.”
“We don’t want them to only do benchmarking and paperwork, we want them to be on site, working with developers and the construction companies, in order to compile a solid evidence-based regulatory framework.”
The Sky’s The Limit
The printer used to build the 250-meter square office building is an impressive 20ft height, 120-feet long by 40ft wide. Dr. Noah Raford, COO of Dubai Future Foundation likens the operation to a big warehouse, with rails on the ceiling and a giant robotic arm that hangs off these rails. It prints onto the floor the elements of the building in layers.
So far, the largest 3D building that has been developed in the world is a six-storey mock up in China. That proto-type of a motel is not, however, a complete building, but merely a showcase.
“Construction technology hasn’t really evolved very significantly in a thousand years,” Raford said. “Of course there’s been a lot in the last 100 years with steal and advanced chemical mixtures of cement, but what we’re seeing right now in 3D printing is the opening up of this whole new area of innovation.”
In 3D printing, traditional concrete is replaced by cement and fibre mixes. Raford says breakthroughs in technology are being delivered on a monthly basis. Stronger, lighter material; carbon fibre additions to the mix; thinner shells; longer spans; mixing metals and plastics are now pushing the limits of what’s possible structurally.
Consequently, the long-standing and laborious process of pouring one layer of concrete at a time could be at an end in the coming years.
“Right now, because this had to be a real building and we had to make sure that it’s safe for His Highness [the Ruler of Dubai] and staff to walk in, we rover-engineered it but that’s part of the learning process as well,” Raford said. “We know what we can do safely and from here on there’ll be gradual increases in knowledge and innovation.”
Getting It Built: A Group Effort
Raford is also keen to emphasize this remains very much a learning stage. It is a collaborative effort, with several industry players working together to figure out what he calls “futuristic aspects of technology development.”
“A few weeks ago we worked with Dubai Holding through Dubai Industrial City and we announced a global 3D printing center,” Raford said. “It provides facilities to research and development centres, universities, academics and industrial players. Dubai Municipality will also open an office there to test the experiments taking place within that cluster economy that will exist around 3D printing.”
The fruit of this early collaboration is the new “Office of the Future” that sits impressively at the base of the twin Emirates Towers on Sheikh Zayed Road.
An outside café and restaurant will be opened for visitors on the premises, right next to the gallery that will house scientific innovations.
Then there are the new Dubai Future Foundation offices themselves, featuring an open work area; a quieter, more personal space with individual pods; and a conference room. All are equipped with cutting-edge technology.
“It’s been a learning journey and there have been many companies involved in building this,” Raford said. “The first phase was with an international consortium with some of the world’s most established players.”
The original sketch and concept design were provided by Gensler, the world’s biggest architectural firm. The structural engineering was undertaken by Thornton Tomasetti, one of the world’s best engineering firms out of Chicago. All the MEP and integration by Syska Hennessy. The printing was carried out by Winsun in China.
“Because it’s developing primarily out of academic origins, you have this fascinating fusion in 3D printing between academic innovation and industrial trials, so there is a lot of back and forth going on. And the knowledge we have developed here really doesn’t yet exist anywhere else.”
Raford referred to partners such as Econstruct and Golden Elements, among others, as the “unsung heroes” of the 3D project. These companies took novel ideas and translated them into reality, solving new challenges along the way. Although many multinational firms have played a big part in what Al Alili calls a “global project,” Dubai authorities are keen that domestic entities are not left behind.
“We thought of this global project as a privilege, we want to keep it open to our local players,” Al Alili said. “We want global players to be part of it because we want something reliable, something futuristic which matches Dubai’s standards. But at the same time we also want to build capabilities in our domestic market.”
Interest in the market is already spiking from some of the country’s major developers. According to Al Alili, Dubai Holding through its development arms—are considering venturing into the 3D printing sector in a very serious way, and will be involved in a pilot project of residential villas to be built in Dubai.
“This is a model they can build on and maybe take to mass projects in regional countries and overseas as well,” Al Alili said. “We are investing heavily in a lot of mega projects. For example, companies like Emaar, [the property developer] they go big or nothing. For them 3D makes sense; their strategy is aligned with what the technology can provide. If they can master the technology, it’s going to be revolutionary for them.”
In terms of innovation and creativity of design, 3D printing has opened up a whole new world.
“In the past with these mega projects, you had four or five designs which you basically copy and paste, that’s the limitations of traditional construction technology,” Raford said. “With 3D printing and digital manufacturing every house can be unique, there is no implication on cost. We like to say, complexity is free. In the old days, low cost housing was usually terrible, it wasn’t adapted to your family size, or cultural needs. But with 3D printing you can digitize all of that, choose your house, and it doesn’t cost any different. It creates actual real cities at very little price.”
Indeed, 3D printed buildings have been touted as potentially quick and cheap solutions for projects ranging from disaster relief operations to low cost housing in developing countries. Al Alili sees that once 3D technology becomes more widespread, innovation in related sectors, like the property market, will rise correspondingly.
“Eventually it can create virtual markets, with designs being put on virtual platforms,” he said. “You can download and buy them online. It will save time, it will save money and will revolutionize the housing sector and the hospitality sector.”
Al Alili returns to the theme of local involvement, this time in relation to the next generation of Emiratis looking to enter a changing workforce. He recalls that since local authorities began discussing drone capabilities several years ago, the interest in the subject spiked to the point where 65 percent of all graduation projects by engineering students revolved around drones. Similar interest has risen in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence.
“Now we are talking about 3D, so definitely things will be de-cascaded to academic institutions,” he said. “Building capability is one of the most important things our leadership are focusing on. Build home grown talent, teach people, build capabilities. We don’t want to be technology consumers; we want to be technology generators. We want to adapt, but also we want to be part of the development itself.”
“People always ask: Why does Dubai always want to be first? Because when you are first you learn faster, and learn from the mistakes faster, and you can teach faster. You can create a model from which you can export to the rest of the world. Dubai is quite good at that.”
This brave new world of 3D printed construction could pull off the trick of making engineering fun again for a generation of youth more obsessed with information technology, the virtual world and pop culture. Maybe the future will mimic that of one crafted by Star Trek.
“We will revolutionize what engineering is. Things will be different in the future, things that will be taught in engineering schools, especially for architects,” Al Alili said. “This will have an impact on people’s lives. They will be living in 3D printed homes, driving 3D printed cars and maybe wearing 3D printed clothes, flying in planes made of 3D printed parts. This is something we see now on a small scale; we don’t have widespread stories yet. But this is the future and we know it, so it’s better for us to be part of it.”
Dubai is setting the pace to be one of the cities of the future. All science, no fiction needed.