Prefabrication and 3D printing – the future of the industry

With advancing technology, 3D printing, prefabrication and modularisation are gaining traction as being more practically viable for application on a larger scale in the construction industry.

These new technologies promise the industry lower construction costs, schedule and quality control and improved sustainability solutions. But they simultaneously present many challenges such as transportation of manufactured modules, coordination of 3D printers, and contractual allocation of new risks that may be challenging to the current construction market.

Prefabrication and modularisation

Prefabrication is a construction practice where building components (e.g. walls, floors, doors) are manufactured off-site and assembled at the site. Modularisation takes prefabrication one step further and typically means the entire unit of a building is constructed off-site.

With the aid of developing computerised systems, prefabrication and modularisation are expected to achieve greater precision, simplicity, standardisation and freedom of customisation with reduced costs.

Currently, modularisation is already capable of reliably constructing permanent or relocatable buildings for education, healthcare, commercial or residential use.

3D printing

The use of 3D printing technologies in construction, also known as an Autonomous Robotic Construction System, involves the transportation of a 3D printer (industrial robots) to the site and automatically constructing the building with 3D printed concrete or mechanically cut bricks.

3D printing not only reduces the errors of human intervention, but may also substantially reduce the energy consumption, noise pollution and greenhouse gas emissions when compared to a traditional construction phase.

Architectural 3D printing technology requires further research and development as there are currently limited construction materials that are compatible with 3D printing.

Amendments to existing contractual arrangements

New technologies bring about new contractual issues and considerations.

Traditional standard form construction contracts (e.g. AS4902, AS4000) may continue to be used for projects that incorporate 3D printing, prefabrication or modularisation – subject to some important and carefully considered amendments and modifications.

Alternatively, the NEC4 suite of contracts, which are gaining momentum in Australia, would also be appropriate as they have inbuilt options for Early Contractor Involvement – which can be used to progress innovations and workshop risks in the early phases of a project.

Regardless of the form of contract used for the particular project, the following are some risks and issues that the new technologies of 3D printing, prefabrication or modularisation will likely present to any project, which will need to be carefully considered to ensure that they are appropriately captured in the risk allocation under the contract:

  • involvement of subcontractors that supply technology and provide maintenance
  • transfer of liability and risk of loss (e.g. delay of delivery, or damage or destruction while in transit from the manufacturing site to the project site)
  • basis and timing of payment for off-site materials
  • variation of design
  • quality control over off-site production and interface with other construction materials and build elements
  • security
  • workplace health and safety plus regulatory compliance.

This publication does not deal with every important topic or change in law and is not intended to be relied upon as a substitute for legal or other advice that may be relevant to the reader's specific circumstances. If you have found this publication of interest and would like to know more or wish to obtain legal advice relevant to your circumstances please contact one of the named individuals listed.