SHARJAH—This emirate has a similar appearance to its better-known neighbors Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Sharjah’s downtown area is largely made up of polished skyscrapers and ringed by constructions sites, so it seems like the infrastructural expansion will not be ending soon.
That development, however, relies mainly on migrant construction workers from the Indian subcontinent. Given the risk that the steady flow of labor could run dry, and with an eye to developing useful architectural technology, academics in the United Arab Emirates are developing 3D printing as a way to erect new buildings.
Adil Al-Tamimi, a professor of civil engineering at the American University of Sharjah, hopes technology will help Sharjah and other emirates to continue their growth even if the Gulf states lose their appeal to migrant workers. “There’s a fear here that our labor source could decrease as Pakistan’s and India’s economies do better,” he says. “It may get harder to draw them here for work.”
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The growth rate of Pakistan’s gross domestic product has increased from 1.7 percent in 2010 to 5.8 percent in 2018, according to statistics from the World Bank. By the same measure, India’s economy has been expanding by a rate of between 4 percent and 8 percent almost every year since 1980.
“India today is not like the India of 30 years ago,” says Al-Tamimi. “People may soon think twice before coming here.”
From Dream to Reality
Specifically, Al-Tamimi is developing a new concrete polymer that he hopes will allow future architects to simply 3D-print skyscrapers into existence. That may sound far-fetched, he concedes, but it wasn’t too long ago that a 3D-printed building of any height seemed like a fantasy.
“People started talking about 3D-printed concrete about ten years ago, but it was only theoretical,” he says. “Even five years ago a small villa was a dream, but it’s a reality now. We even have one on campus.”
The technology uses smart, robotic machines to lay liquid building materials, which then set into a solid structure. A second layer is then added in the same way until a wall is completed.
“You have the architectural drawing and you give it to the robot, and it will execute the design,” explains Al-Tamimi. “It’s easy to customize and it can produce very complicated shapes easily.”
“People started talking about 3D-printed concrete about ten years ago, but it was only theoretical. … It’s a reality now.”Adil Al-Tamimi
A professor of civil engineering at the American University of Sharjah
In truth, the on-campus villa is still under construction, but it won’t be long until it’s finished. It’s part of a project in which Al-Tamimi and colleagues are trying to create a polymer that would allow for taller buildings to be produced in this way.
“We can’t build the Burj Khalifa in this way, but the science is advancing quickly,” says Al-Tamimi, referring to the landmark tower in Dubai. “Once you go vertical you have stability issues.”
Currently, the technology can only be stretched to about five stories in height. That’s because a 3D-printed building is made solely from the concrete material poured out by the robot and therefore doesn’t contain any steel bars for reinforcement, which becomes an issue when trying to build tower blocks that can stay standing in the wake of earthquakes or high wind speeds.
Environmental and Cost Benefits
Haidar Alhaidary is a project executive for Middle East Engineer Technologies, a private company that specializes in 3D printing technology and is collaborating with the American University of Sharjah. He is overseeing the printing of the on-campus show villa and he says the technology isn’t just a quirky fad.
“You use a very precise amount of materials, so you save on environmental waste, which also reduces the cost, and the time of construction is greatly reduced too.”Haidar Alhaidary
A project executive with a company that’s collaborating with the American University of Sharjah
“You use a very precise amount of materials, so you save on environmental waste, which also reduces the cost, and the time of construction is greatly reduced too,” he says.
If needed, a 3D house with a pre-existing design could be printed within a couple of weeks, which means the technology won’t just be used to help rich nations like the United Arab Emirates to keep on building taller towers—but it also could help in humanitarian relief too, says Al-Tamimi.
“The technology could be used in natural and political disasters when new housing is needed quickly,” says Al-Tamimi. That could mean refugee camps in the future are safer and more sanitary. (See a related article, “Iraqi City Displays Grassroots Urban Planning.”)
That said, the bulk of 3D-printed buildings in the future are likely to be mainstream family homes than refugee camps or record-breaking skyscrapers, says Alhaidary. “I think we’ll see this become more and more normal in the future.”