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3D Printing: Disruptive Construction Innovation

Updated: Jul 8, 2020

3D printed construction will change the world.

As shown in a recent LinkedIn post from Interesting Engineering, 3D printed construction technology is still being perfected, but it's coming. And it represents a quantum leap in construction methodology, vastly improving affordability, speed, durability, design flexibility, energy efficiency, and sustainability.

In 2015 I estimated the global latent market for 3D printed construction material (the cementitious "ink" that makes up the structure of the building) for "urgent housing" (slum replacements, homeless & refugee housing) ONLY, to be over $1 Trillion, with an additional ongoing demand of $90 Billion per year.

This doesn't even include "mainstream" applications, such as traditional commercial; market-rate multi-family or single-family residential; or civil construction, which will represent a far larger opportunity when the technology is ready.

At the time, I prepared a business case for the technology and presented it to the management of a multinational building materials manufacturer, strongly recommending they immediately begin development of a proprietary printing material to supply this emerging construction method.

They declined, judging that the technology was "too far in the future" to be a viable opportunity.

Well, now it appears startups like ICON and Apis Cor have beaten the behemoth to the trillion-dollar prize. Not a great shock, but good for them.

This is another prototypical example of disruptive innovation:

  1. Established incumbent declines pursuit of a solution, as it does not address the current needs of its core customers.

  2. New entrant pursues the innovation instead, initially offering a solution that's not a fit for most customers, but sufficient for a few early adopters.

  3. New entrant gradually moves upmarket, improving the solution until it is comparable if not superior to the incumbent solution.

  4. Incumbent's core customers gradually adopt the new solution in place of the old, eroding the incumbent's revenues.

  5. Incumbent finally responds, but by now it's too late for them to catch up, and they are irreparably disadvantaged, if not put out of business.

I'm not saying the legacy multi-billion-dollar building materials manufacturers are going out of business any time soon. But I am confident that revenues from traditional wall materials (lumber, sheathing, drywall, batt insulation, etc.) will suffer increasingly as 3D printed construction takes off.

Once the legacy manufacturers realize they've missed the boat (again), some will respond, but too late to compete in any substantive way. Some will no doubt end up acquiring some technology in the space and then touting their "innovativeness."

There will be a group of companies that will make BILLIONS of dollars commercializing 3D printed construction technology over the next decade. My guess is, NONE of them are on any current ENR Top 100 list.

I love capitalism.

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