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3D printing fails to live up to hype for Mena contractors

Mena construction Reuters/Max Schwarz
The Mena construction industry has been slow to adopt technologies such as 3D printing using concrete and robotics
  • Slow adoption of modular building
  • Software more useful than 3D printing
  • Costs and build times could be cut

The Mena construction industry has been slow to adopt new technologies such as modular building, blockchain and 3D printing.

The latter might be used more as a specialised tool with particular “sweet spots” than in a mass deployment, according to industry experts who spoke this week at the Construction Technology ConFex event in Dubai. Its potential may have been somewhat overhyped, they added.

Reda Bin Abdoun, chief technology officer for Ajdan Real Estate Development in Riyadh, said 3D printing has been used on certain projects in Saudi Arabia because of its speed and ease of use. 

“It is helpful but it is not widespread,” he said during a conference panel.

A 2022 research paper by four Bahrain-based scholars found that the GCC construction industry was relatively cool on 3D printing. Regulation has hobbled its use. Leading industry companies remained behind their global peers in including it in assembly lines.

Even globally, the industry seems reluctant to fully embrace this technology. 

A 2023 survey by Austrian construction software company PlanRadar of more than 1,300 professionals in 15 countries from the UK to Australia  – none of which were in the Gulf – found that 80 percent of respondents had not invested in 3D printing in the previous three years. Only 29 percent were slated to do so over the following three years. 

By contrast, 77 percent of survey participants said they aimed to invest significantly in construction management software, 68 percent planned to invest in energy efficiency and renewables, 66 percent in Building Information Modelling (BIM) and 44 percent in artificial intelligence.

I’ve seen solutions where for infrastructure projects requiring a very tight deadline, 3D printing can be amazing. They can get that product printed really quickly,” said Tony Harbour, regional head of technology partnerships for construction software company Procore. “It’s really niche in terms of where it can be used effectively in the industry.“

Dubai authorities said in 2016 they wanted 25 percent of buildings 3D-printed by 2030.

State-owned master developer Nakheel received the first licence to do so in December 2023 for its Al Furjan Hills project. It claimed to have completed the 3D concrete printing phase in 20 days.

Harbour also mentioned augmented reality as a technology that received a lot of attention when it first came on the construction industry’s radar more than a decade ago, but which has thus far failed to secure wide-scale adoption.

Architecture, Building, HouseCreative Commons
Modular building is especially suited to the Middle East’s greenfield projects

Modular construction, meanwhile, “ticks all the boxes” – including offsite factory work to increase standardisation and reduce waste. It is “picking up” in the Gulf, but the industry needs to get better at incorporating it into the earliest phases of planning, according to Imad Itani, head of innovation at ALEC Engineering & Contracting.

“The project needs to be thought of as modular, you cannot just design the project as a standard project and then apply modular afterwards,” Itani said during the panel. 

According to a Bain & Company analysis from February, modular construction is especially suited to the Middle East’s massive greenfield projects. It can help save upwards of 20 percent in labour and material costs, and cut construction timelines by 20 to 50 percent. 

Yet modular construction is employed in less than 10 percent of projects in many countries around the world. Singapore and Sweden, where it is used in more than 30 percent of residential development, are the main outliers.

Blockchain potential

Similarly, blockchain, or distributed-ledger, technology is “phenomenal”, but has not yet reached its full potential in the construction industry, said Damir Jaksic, chief information officer, KEO International Consultants.

“I really can’t wait to see the day, that’s undoubtedly coming, when the blockchain [will be the standard] because then we will have these super-binding contracts, which are automatically executed,” he told the conference audience. 

A 2023 study by researchers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United States found that blockchain-powered smart contracts could help relieve the Middle Eastern construction industry’s long-running struggles with contract disputes and construction and payment delays. 

Yet, the authors claimed, “the adoption of smart contracts in the Mena construction sector remains limited, and the region lacks thorough research on this topic.”

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