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The Construction Industry in the 21st Century

By Keith Kirkpatrick

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 61 No. 3, Pages 18-20

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The construction of New York's Empire State Building is often seen as the figurative and literal pinnacle of construction efficiency, rising 1,250 feet and 102 stories from the ground to its rooftop spire in just over 13 months' time, at a human cost of just five lives. Indeed, most of today's construction projects would be lucky to come close to that level of speed, regardless of the building's size. While the construction industry traditionally has been slow to change the way it operates, several new technologies are poised to usher in a new era of faster and more automated construction practices.

Three-dimensional (3D) printing is among the key technologies that are expected to change the way structures are built in the future, as construction engineers and contractors seek methods for completing buildings more quickly, more efficiently, and, in many cases, with a greater attention paid to sustainability. Large printers that can print construction materials such as foam or concrete into specific shapes can drastically speed up the creation of walls, decorative or ornamental pieces, and even certain structural elements. Furthermore, in some scenarios, custom-built or unique items can be created onsite or in a factory, at a much lower cost than by using traditional, one-off casting techniques.


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