How 3D Printing in Construction Will (Eventually) Transform the Built World

How 3D Printing in Construction Will (Eventually) Transform the Built World

exteriror of Dubai's Office of the Future
Dubai’s Office of the Future was printed in just 17 days. Courtesy of Dubai Media Office.
  • When it comes to sustainable construction, 3D printing isn’t just a novelty; it’s an essential tool for realizing complex shapes; building in challenging terrain; and saving time, money, and materials.
  • Many 3D printing methods, from extrusion to bonding, are ideal for use in construction.
  • 3D printing in construction faces a few challenges, including high up-front costs, and lack of skills and standards.
  • But at some point, 3D printed buildings will become cheaper and more sustainable than traditionally built structures, ushering a rapid industry shift.

The 2016 construction of Dubai’s Office of the Future signaled that 3D printing in construction was ready for its close-up. The 2,691-square-foot building uses energy-efficient HVAC systems, responsive LED lighting, and solar shading to reduce power consumption, and it took a team of 18 people just 17 days to complete using a 20x40x120-foot 3D printer. After cementing its place as a product-prototyping technology, 3D printing has branched out into a whole new dimension.

But for the construction industry, 3D printing is as much an urgent need as it is a flashy novelty. Construction is responsible for 23% of air pollution, 40% of drinking-water pollution, and 50% of landfill—and that needs to change. As the software and machinery improves, architects and construction firms are increasingly turning to 3D printing to realize complex shapes; build in dangerous or remote areas; and save time, money, and materials. The age of 3D printing in construction is here—and as barriers fall away, it will become key to sustainable construction in the future.



3D Printing Methods

3D printing has been around a surprisingly long time, existing in practice since 1971. After a couple of decades of development in the industrial world, a variety of 3D printing techniques have emerged—though only a few are suited to construction:


Extrusion is the process of heating a material to near-melting point and forcing it through a small aperture, then applying it to a surface where it starts to solidify into a shape dictated by the angle and force of the extrusion. Extrusion was behind the consumer 3D printing craze because it suits lightweight materials such as polymers or carbon fiber.

Since its origins, extrusion technology has expanded into everything from metals to biological material. It’s the cheapest form of 3D printing, and in construction it mostly applies to small, lightweight components.

Plastic strands emerge from an extrusion machine.


Also called binder jetting, bonding can be used with an extruder or a process that’s more like the way an inkjet printer applies ink to the page, “spraying” it directly, albeit in a much more precise and targeted way.

The 3D print head deposits a thin layer of bonding agent onto the previous layer along with the input material, giving the next layer of material and the overall structure more strength and stability. Bonding’s suitability for materials such as metal powders, ceramic metal compounds, and sand makes it ideal for construction.

Additive Welding

Additive welding is the newest technique for working with tough materials such as metals.

Rather than heating material and forcing it through an extruder or shooting it inkjet-style from a nozzle, additive welding uses an energy source—anything from a laser beam to a traditional arc welding torch—to melt the material into powders or small strips or wires, which are laid onto the previous layer, cooling and setting rapidly into a predetermined shape.



Construction Materials Can Be 3D Printed

Of the myriad components that go into a construction project, many of them (metal, concrete, rubber, plastics) can be 3D printed. Innovations already exist to make them easy to work with, such as programs designed to print a specified component (a wall, an aircraft wing, etc.) with all the wires, pipes, seals, framing, and other materials and pieces already present, all extruded in the same multi-material process.

Crucially for construction, concrete is a viable candidate for 3D printing because 3D printing concrete uses the same ingredients (sand, water, aggregates) as a traditional process. But instead of dumping everything in a mixer and adding sand or water on the fly, the mix and consistency have to be correct in the beginning so they don’t clog the extruder or applicator.

Today a 3D printed house or building is managed by deploying a printer onsite. For the largest projects, that means a full-size gantry that can move the extruder head anywhere around the building it needs to go.

For instances where that’s not feasible, the building blocks of a construction project can be printed then shipped to the site—a process that is rapidly improving. One Oakland, California business is making 3D printed bricks (called “modular building components”). Using nothing more than clay and sand, the Cool Brick from Emerging Objects can cool a room and even stabilize the entire building structure during an earthquake.



Benefits of 3D Printing in Construction

For construction firms and buyers willing to jump in, 3D printed construction materials offer a host of advantages that, when scaled industry-wide, could upend the built environment.

Zero Waste

The construction industry as a whole is expected to churn out 2.2 billion tons of waste by 2025—making the environmental benefits of 3D printing crucial.

A lot of items are made by cutting or forming things out of bigger things, subtracting material. As one of the biggest industries on earth, construction contributes a lot of those material off-cuts. Building a structure from a 3D printer means provisioning only the input material you need and not a single gram more.

Lower Energy Footprint

The construction industry is responsible for 39% of all energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. By eliminating the need to produce and ship energy-intensive materials, 3D printing can make construction greener. One exciting application is potentially sending a 3D printer to Mars and building a habitat from the very dirt it landed on.

Closer to home, builders can use locally available, naturally occurring materials. Upsides include reducing toxic materials on job sites and minimizing the need to transport materials to a site and remove waste (or remove demolition waste from existing structures).

material pellets
Material pellets could be sourced from local dirt to build habitats on Mars. Courtesy of AI Space Factory.

Faster and Cheaper

Additively manufactured buildings incur cost savings throughout the process: You don’t need to buy more material than you need. You don’t need to ship or truck materials in. You don’t need to take leftover or unused material away. You don’t need unskilled labor for carting, stacking, barrowing, or preparing bricks or lumber frames.

If environmental conditions are favorable, a 3D printer can run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no more attention needed than restocking input material and maintaining a power source.

Limited Only By Your Imagination

It’s a common frustration: An architect creates an innovative design, but materials, building practices, or physics dull the sharp edges of that unique vision, resulting in a more traditional final result.

By contrast, additive manufacturing means the weight distribution or spatial needs of a way-out design are built one layer at a time, supporting their own weight or footprint as they’re manufactured. Traditional methods or tools don’t have to dictate the design any longer.

A New Safety Profile

Deaths in the construction industry rose throughout the 2010s, reaching a 12-year high in 2019. Transportation accidents, falls, exposure to harmful substances, and fires are behind most of these tragedies, but a 3D printed built environment could do away with virtually all of these hazards.

Translating a 3D representation of a structure directly to the machine building it (rather than to humans reading plans, which can lead to translation errors and conflicting information) means more precision and automation, taking more people out of harm’s way. Damage to and injury from stored materials can become a thing of the past when there’s no onsite material to store, move, and manage.



Challenges for 3D Printing in the Construction Industry

Despite these benefits, 3D printers are still scarce on building sites. When smartphone networks became ubiquitous, landline infrastructure was replaced on a wholesale basis. Why hasn’t the same happened for 3D printing in construction? The reality is that while the theory is sound, very real bottlenecks limit widespread adoption.

Prohibitive Upfront Costs

The supply chain for lumber, metal frames, window glass, plumbing, and energy fixtures is deeply entrenched in the economy—from the global supply of wood or steel down to local suppliers and builders—and the price points are accounted for from the inception of every new project.

Despite the long-term advantages in speed and costs, 3D printing still has a high up-front cost, and it’s not necessarily one that can be passed onto the buyer; part of the appeal for the whole movement is an assumed cost saving.

Lagging Skills Training

While there are a million construction firms in the world, very few have experience with 3D printing. The field needs software engineers and materials scientists to work with builders, and growth in the area—training more of these specialists in colleges or on the job—has to outstrip more general growth in construction for the necessary experts to stay ahead of the demand.

Lack of Applicable Standards

Creating buildings is one of the most highly regulated areas of the economy. While the laws apply to any dwelling regardless of manufacture, they were created for traditional construction based on a century of mass industrialization, and building codes don’t directly translate when new manufacturing pathways such as 3D printing are used.

That makes the practice of 3D printing a building (rather than the end product itself) a very unregulated area, something both owners and investors remain wary of until regulations can catch up to the technology.



Examples of 3D Printing in Construction

Oudezijds Achterburgwal Pedestrian Bridge

Bringing together the old and the new, Dutch technology firm MX3D built a stainless steel 3D printed footbridge across the 670-year-old Amsterdam canal in 2015. 3D printed structures were traditionally constrained by the size of the printer, but MX3D used thin molten wire inputs to create the 40-foot bridge in a single piece, floating it into the canal system for transport and fixing it in place.

Amsterdam's Oudezijds Achterburgwal pedestrian bridge
MX3D’s footbridge spans Amsterdam’s Oudezijds Achterburgwal, one of the city’s oldest canals.

Today, the footbridge is more than just a bridge: Coupled with real-time data on strain, vibration, and displacement taken from foot traffic and fed into Amsterdam’s smart infrastructure grid, it’s a critical sensor in the effort to measure the city’s lifeblood. It’s also a conversation starter: a way of bringing 3D printing to everyday lives. As MX3D cofounder Tim Geurtjens said at the time; “It’s not just for commercial sake, it’s also to make what you want to make because it’s possible.”

3D Printed Buildings

Among the players printing houses and office buildings, it’s been a race for superlatives: the biggest, fastest, cheapest, etc.

Back in 2015, however, Chinese company Winsun reached the “biggest” milestone first with its 3D printed six-story apartment building and biggest 3D printed house. Today the firm is pioneering environmentally friendly materials such as fiber-reinforced plastic, glass fiber–reinforced gypsum and the intriguingly named Crazy Magic Stone.

Of course, 3D printing is about more than the flashy projects that the media flocks to. In 2017, France’s YRYS concept home used injection molding to press layers of rapidly setting 3D printed concrete into perforated walls and support columns to hold the upper story aloft, changing the game by creating building components that are lightweight but strong.

3d printed housing structure
XtreeE, one of 18 partners collaborating on the YRYS concept house, created support pillars (shown) and a perforated wall for the experimental housing structure. Courtesy XtreeE.

Artificial Coral Reefs

3D printing technology can be used to benefit nature. The practice of scuttling decommissioned navy and merchant ships provides havens for undersea life to flourish because their many nooks and crannies provide diverse habitats. In the same spirit, XtreeE (the company behind the YRYS House concept home) created a 3D printed artificial reef in 2017 for a marine national park off the southern coast of France.

The irregular tunnels in the structure encouraged the growth of fish, mollusks, corals, and algae populations, which started to decline after the loss of habitats in the 1970s from city wastewater.  Today, healthy sea life has returned to the region.

3D printed coral reef
XtreeE and Seaboost modeled irregular tunneling shapes in a porous concrete “reef” to encourage the return of displaced marine species. Courtesy XtreeE.

Pavilions and Bandshells

Taking cues from biology, Tennessee-based Branch Technology is creating some of the biggest structures ever produced using 3D printing.

The company’s process takes any software-based 3D architecture model and changes it into a freeform lattice structure that can be 3D printed to act as formwork for traditional materials. In 2018, the company produced the largest 3D printed object in history, a 42-foot-long bandshell for a Nashville entertainment precinct.

The design mimics biology is in the way living tissue is formed and grown at a cellular level. The 3D printed “shell” is the outer superstructure; the strength and purpose of the structure is then fortified with traditional construction materials (analogous to the blood, water, plasma, etc. within cells).

OneC1TY3D printed lattice bandshell
Nashville’s OneC1TY3D printed lattice bandshell structure can withstand a foot of snow and 90-mile-per-hour-winds. Courtesy Branch Technology.



Is 3D Printing Really the Future? Short Answer: Yes.

It’ll take a long time to destabilize and ultimately depose incumbent building practices and the industry players insisting on them. Like similar movements, 3D printed construction isn’t a technology problem, it verges into political and economic areas.

But at some point, there will be a magic moment when 3D printed buildings become cheaper than traditional construction methods, thanks to a safer, faster process with reduced environmental impact.

The construction industry is watching for that point very carefully, and as soon as it’s reached, the industry will start to shift very rapidly, with businesses, organizations, and governments racing to stay ahead of the curve.

6 Trends in Architecture, Engineering, and Construction to Look for in 2022

6 Trends in Architecture, Engineering, and Construction to Look for in 2022

A man and woman wear VR headsets on a construction site

Interactive design visualization through extended reality (XR) will increasingly become the norm for architects and engineers in 2022 and beyond.

  • Remote work and collaboration are here to stay, requiring new methods of visualization—and heightened security requirements.
  • Digital technologies and automation will help solve for everything from building health and maintenance to supply-chain issues.
  • The sustainability conversation is turning toward embodied carbon as novel ideas kickstart a cascade of sequestering innovation.

If anything could be identified as the main narrative of the previous shifting, uncertain year, it’s adaptation. Architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) firms reacted, recalibrated, and evolved their working methods in 2021 amid rapid digitization and constant supply-chain challenges. Through it all, they figured out how to sharpen their pencils and get it done.

Yet at a time when disruptions seem to be daily events, and everything but creativity is in short supply, adaptation hasn’t been just a reaction—it has become a constant state. From adopting sustainability practices on a wider scale to making radical leaps in technological innovation, massive shifts within the AEC industries will continue in 2022 and serve as catalysts for changing models of collaboration, new technologies, and even virtual realities.

Here are six trends in architecture, construction, and beyond to look for this year.

1. Industry Convergence Through Visualization

In a more remote, work-from-home world, collaboration—the where and how of teamwork and ideation—becomes much more important. For architects and engineers, interactive design visualization will bridge the physical distance and open new opportunities. Many in the industry firmly understand that the fast-moving world of extended reality (XR) is the new environment for work.

Gaming and XR technologies (such as Iris VR) complement traditional AEC workflows, make virtual environments more immersive and cost-effective, streamline management on complex projects, and earn client buy-in for proposals. A recent example of this is from an engineering firm in Norway called Norconsult. It recently designed the Route E39 bridge using immersive virtual-reality (VR) technology from Unity to help set client expectations early in the design process and speed up decision making.

Blond man uses a VR headset in front on a screen

The team at Norconsult used VR technology on the E39 coastal highway in Norway. Courtesy of Norconsult.


These more engaging visual platforms will help collectively design future urban environments, from single structures to entire metropolises. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) is already on the case, partnering with world building visionary Experimental Design, thought leaders, and technologists to build out an XR environment called the Future World Vision. The project showcases scenarios that imagine how cities of the future could be built, exemplifying the ways virtual worlds can better solve for today’s real-world issues.

Speaking of the metaverse, more immersive online environments, such as The Wild, have the potential to transform the way design and architecture work. Beyond the hype, design teams can experience building massing and prototyping and, in a sense, actually spend time in proposed projects, leading to a more hands-on, collaborative workflow. Testing facades for energy performance and constructability will be simpler; presentations will be more impressive; and approvals will be faster when more stakeholders can meet up on the ground floor of a design concept before actual ground is broken. 

2. Increased Importance of Digital Twins for Owners

As owners face the question of how to reimagine, repurpose, or reuse their buildings and assets, data will provide the answer. With digital twins—digital representations of structures that track and analyze all manner of actual performance data—owners and designers can get incredible insights into what their next projects should look like. Prologis, which owns a massive logistics portfolio, is investing heavily in the tracking of building data, which helps everyone involved learn from the way thousands of structures operate.

The utility of this technology means more owners will either build up a bench of internal architects and engineers who have experience with digital twins or hire outside firms to provide this service. This will be one factor pulling architecture and engineering firms into more of an operational role, opening up new relationships and business opportunities with clients. Firms such as KEO and Beca are already starting to offer new digital twin services, and others will follow suit. Like so many other trends shaping the year, data collection and analysis will be a sought-after skill.

3. Automation as Solution for Labor and Supply-Chain Woes

Automation will increasingly be an essential tool for designing around shortages of materials and skilled workers, helping ease design-labor challenges and supply-chain gridlock. Designing 100 buildings will result in 100 different visions, but with investment in automation, a significant portion of design work becomes semiautomatic, which is especially key when facing a shortage of engineers. Design also becomes quicker.

In the UK, the design firm Ramboll uses Autodesk Advance Steel steel-detailing software to automate the design of road gantries, cutting costs by 40% and designing in minutes what used to take hours or even days. SYSTRA, a large European infrastructure firm, uses 3D parametric modeling in Autodesk Revit to automate bridge design. These solutions will be increasingly valuable in code-based design scenarios, saving architects and engineers the time required to manually evaluate project parameters, allowing them to focus more on the creative work that sets each design apart.

4. Heightened Focus on Embodied Carbon

When it comes to total carbon, the AEC industry has made gains in addressing operational carbon, with less attention paid to embodied carbon (the emissions created from extracting, refining, manufacturing, and moving materials). But due to successful efforts in making buildings more energy efficient, embodied carbon is becoming a bigger factor in greenhouse gas emissions. Fortunately, one of the more promising themes to emerge from the UN’s COP26 climate summit was a realization that heavy industry and embodied carbon require immediate attention and scalable solutions as part of the worldwide emissions-reduction strategy. Many building trades and material producers have answered the call with robust roadmaps, industry-wide pledges to cut emissions, and refinements of new industrial processes like green steel and carbon-capturing cement.

Change is already underway. For example, start-ups such as CarbonCure are capturing carbon and embedding it in cast concrete, and Nucor, the largest structural steel producer in the US, will start producing its new Econiq steel products in 2022—all 100% powered by green energy. Small but innovative ideas like these, along with a wider embrace by clients and the construction industry, will have a cascading effect on the rest of the world. It will be important for designers to not focus on reducing embodied carbon in a vacuum. Trade-offs among cost, carbon (operational and embodied), material waste, and even water all have to be factored into the impact on the environment. Embracing new materials and designing buildings with technological tools—such as Spacemaker, which helps designers plan more sustainable projects, and Innovyze, which analyzes water infrastructure—can significantly reduce the environmental footprint of future buildings.

Orange cement truck at a concrete plant

A CarbonCure truck on-site at a concrete plant. Courtesy of CarbonCure.

5. More Resilient Buildings Thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT)

Climate change has placed more pressure on infrastructure to perform, especially concerning the systems that run through buildings. In an era when infrastructure design needs to be rethought and building codes must evolve for rapidly shifting surroundings, architecture and construction are called to create buildings that are smarter, more efficient, and sited to avoid the ravages of tomorrow’s climate.

Consider the significant advances in consumer tech that are already on the market to monitor personal health by checking heartbeats or providing diagnoses: IoT data will play that role for buildings. How did a skyscraper perform during an earthquake, and what could be improved? How is the air quality of an apartment building? Buildings, owners, and cities are all looking for technology to monitor and evaluate performance, help predict and prevent issues, and better design the smart buildings and cities of the future.

Hands hold a smart phone showing IoT building data

Internet of Things data for buildings will help owners monitor everything from structural integrity to air quality.

6. Data Strategies for Remote and Hybrid Firms

Fully remote and hybrid working situations are not going away anytime soon, if ever. And that poses a unique challenge when it comes to keeping intellectual property (IP) and client data secure while collaborating across home and business networks. Because the risks from ransomware and hackers have increased, having a data strategy as a company is that much more important—and will require the proper investment to put the necessary tools, protections, and people in place.

IT folks who previously focused on closed systems will need to up their game to understand how to harden their networks and keep IP secure. But once they do, it will make everybody better in the future. Once everyone can work in that mode, the whole industry will be more efficient, more able to share work, and more flexible, knowing that digital data stream is secure, trusted, and protected.

What Is Construction Automation, and How Will It Drive the Future of Building?

What Is Construction Automation, and How Will It Drive the Future of Building?

Automated construction has the potential to enable the industry to safely meet global building and infrastructural needs of an increasing population.

While development and adoption of automation technologies has evolved more slowly in construction than in manufacturing, the time is now ripe for automated construction technologies to play a major role in helping to bring construction’s digital transformation into full bloom.

The continued evolution of the construction industry will rely on automation in its many forms, from automated digital design and analyses processes to the automated creation of construction documentation and, ultimately, the act of construction. Automation of construction processes, whether they are used for off-site prefabrication that mimics advanced manufacturing’s best practices or on-site construction robotics, will determine the construction industry’s success in fulfilling its 21st-century dual challenges: high demand for buildings and infrastructure and the necessity of sustainability across the entire lifecycle.

Construction automation has the potential to address similar opportunities and challenges that automated manufacturing processes have helped resolve in other industries, including improving production time, material efficiencies, labor productivity, and worker health and safety, as well as compensating for labor shortages, reducing environmental impacts, creating new design opportunities, and so on. Put simply, automated construction has the potential to enable the industry to safely meet the global building and infrastructure needs of an increasing population. New technological developments and industry trends signal that now is the time for automation to take hold.

a prefabricated window is lowered into place in a building facade.

Prefabricated 3D-printed concrete molds manufactured off-site are brought to a jobsite—an example of industrialized construction.

What Is Construction Automation?

The term construction automation captures the processes, tools, and equipment that use automated workflows to build buildings and infrastructure. In some cases, tools are deployed to automate work that was previously done manually, and in other cases, automated tooling enables new processes to be transferred or developed specifically for construction. Automation in construction can occur at various phases of a project, beginning with the software-based design stage, continuing with automated aspects of off-site and on-site construction, and ending by sharing collected data on the systems and energy use of finished buildings—all captured in cloud-based living models. Several core development strategies are needed to realize this integrated feedback loop, both in software and hardware. For example, collaborative robotics; industrialized construction strategies; new types of robots and automated machines; and real-time in-situ sensing, feedback, and adaptation are among the technologies and strategies that are converging to make automation in construction a widespread reality.

Industrialized construction (IC) is a term used to define the strategic deployment of materials, processes, and systems within the construction processes in ways that take cues from manufacturing. Industrialized construction is not synonymous with construction automation, but the two are fundamentally linked as the increased adoption of automated tools is enabling industrialized-construction strategies to have a radical impact on the way construction happens. Currently, the term industrialized construction mostly involves off-site construction, where the application of manufacturing techniques to the built environment is more widely spread.

Industrialized-construction processes produce elements of buildings and infrastructure, from single parts to components or entire assemblies, using technologies and strategies typically reserved for manufacturing processes. In the case of volumetric industrialized construction, complete volumetric modules—whole hotel rooms, for example—are manufactured in a factorylike environment and then transported to the construction site for assembly into a complete building.

Because of its origins in manufacturing, industrialized construction draws upon the certainty, safety, and quality assurance afforded by a predictable set of variables not found in traditional construction and has the potential to take advantage of advanced, highly automated manufacturing techniques. These are not new ideas—there are examples tracing back to the origins of the built environment—but now there is an unprecedented convergence of technologies that increase the value and impact of IC strategies deployed across the entire industry.

In automated industrialized construction processes, traditional paper drawings can be eliminated, as data from 3D models and other digital artifacts go directly into an automated production line for fabrication. Production lines may include industrial robots, overhead gantries, conveyors, or other automated equipment that complete the translation of materials to building components and assemblies. It is critical to evaluate opportunities for automation as they relate to impact on the environment; the workers; and of course, the return on investment (ROI). My colleagues and I agree that the best possible outcome is a carefully choreographed and collaborative relationship between humans and machines, similar to what is seen on many automotive assembly lines.

A Brief History of Construction Automation

It’s easy to think of robots and automated tools flying about a construction site as part of a far-out speculative future, but the reality is that strategies critical to the deployment of these tools have been in existence for millennia, and ideas of mechanized automated construction have been demonstrated for centuries. Early examples of off-site construction are spaced more than 2,000 years apart, from the prefabrication techniques used to build the Terracotta Army in third-century BCE China to the prefabricated panels assembled on-site for housing in Berlin in the 1920s.

Yet modern construction automation featuring robotics did not take off until after the first industrial robots were invented in the 1950s and the automotive industry put them to work in 1960s. Factory automation spread throughout the industrial world, and construction robotics began to surface in the 1960s and 1970s. Facing a construction-labor shortage due to an aging population and disinterested younger workers, Japan innovated construction automation and robotics in the 1970s and 1980s. Japanese architecture and engineering companies such as the Shimizu Corporation, Obayashi Corporation, and Takenaka Corporation created robots and remote-controlled machines for excavating, handling materials, placing and finishing concrete, fireproofing, earthworks, placing rebar, and other construction tasks.

The construction industry has been slow to develop and adopt automated processes. Today, however, a revitalization of construction automation is underway, assisted by collaboration among businesses, governments, and academia.

Beyond some examples that were driven largely by extreme perceived labor pressures—and in light of the steep initial investment, complexities of implementation, trade segregation, and lack of construction-specific tools—the construction industry has been slow to develop and adopt automated processes. Today, however, a revitalization of construction automation is underway, assisted by collaboration among businesses, governments, and academia. The robust data and sophisticated architectural-design and data-management possibilities coming from BIM (Building Information Modeling) and artificial intelligence–infused generative design approaches are combined with rapidly advancing robotics and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies to fuel construction’s digitalization and convergence with manufacturing techniques. Lower-cost hardware, combined with new workflows that link design-to-robotic fabrication workflows, afford new opportunities for the transfer of industrial robotics to the field of construction.

Types of Construction Automation

Off-Site Construction Automation

Off-site construction automation describes practices that make the construction process more like modern automated manufacturing. Several similar but not synonymous terms fall under the umbrella of off-site construction, including prefabrication, volumetric and panelized modular construction, and precast. These practices move construction processes off-site and into factories, within a familiar and controlled environment that can be optimized to take advantage of automation, industrial robotics, digital production workflows, and design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA) strategies.

Off-site automation in the building industry is more common than automated on-site operations, and the proximity to manufacturing has made direct technology transfer from manufacturing more accessible, with one major caveat. In manufacturing, automated production lines are typically used in high-volume production, in which the part size, shape, and assembly sequence is consistent across many thousands of units. While the construction of buildings, roads, and bridges includes assemblies of manufactured parts, the diversity of materials and processes, along with the inherent variation from component to component and between projects, presents a unique challenge for tooling (the configuration of automated equipment in a production line), and the production line must be automated but also configurable enough to respond to variation.

a prefabricated home takes shape on an assembly line.

Off-site construction takes processes typically performed on-site and moves them into a factory, within a familiar and controlled environment that can be optimized to take advantage of automation, industrial robotics, digital production workflows, and DfMA strategies.Factory automation is a big investment, but in the long run, it can save time, money, and resources while improving quality control and quality assurance and providing safer, more comfortable conditions for workers by eliminating many of the repetitive tasks associated with typical construction processes. Factory-based construction can yield environmental benefits, creating less waste; using less water; reducing operational energy and dust pollution; and optimizing material use, reuse, and recycling. And when combined with automated processes, it will play a major role in meeting the global demands for buildings and infrastructure. Some of the most ambitious automated construction factories are meant to run around the clock with little human intervention.

It’s like what Warren Bennis, an American scholar and pioneer in leadership studies, famously wrote: “The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”

On-Site Construction Automation

Factory-based automation in construction might be considered a technology transfer from manufacturing (with some exceptions), where automated tooling is configured to produce building elements rather than products. On-site construction automation, however, presents different, unique challenges and opportunities. Developing and deploying equipment becomes less of a direct transfer and requires new equipment and processes—a rich area for research, new business activity, and start-ups. Construction-automation machinery made for on-site operation must be portable enough to travel to jobsites, then set up, used, and taken down to move to the next job. In some cases, existing equipment, such as heavy earth-moving machinery, has been retrofitted, and new equipment is increasingly produced with an eye toward an automated or semiautomated future.

Some early examples of on-site automation resulted in building systems that were specialized to work with those automated construction systems and, in many cases, reduced the uniqueness of the building. Today, there is a second go at automated construction that supports variations across units while also using standardized elements. For example, automated equipment that places concrete reinforcement eliminates repetitive tasks on the jobsite; allows performance-driven variability in rebar placement without incurring extra cost; and, by placing material precisely where it is needed, reduces waste.

Boston-based start-up NeXtera Robotics makes on-site construction-automation systems—for example, its Oliver construction site-scanning and layout robot. Certain on-site construction automation machines may also be applicable to off-site prefabrication, such as the drywall installation robots NeXtera is developing, but applying these machines on-site can save the builder shipping costs.

Other companies are also focusing on the challenge of layout—a tedious exercise where precision is needed. Dusty Robotics, for example, deploys mobile robotic platforms that draw construction data from a digital model and transfer that data to the construction site, essentially printing the construction instructions directly on the floor of the building itself, saving time and labor and improving accuracy.

Robotics in Construction

Robots, particularly industrial robotic arms and mobile robotic platforms, play a major role in the conversation around automation in construction. One might envision a future with construction-specific robots, but today, manufacturing-based robots are transferred to construction. Companies such as ULC Technologies develop custom solutions and integrate industrial robotics into construction site–suitable work cells. Its Roadworks and Excavation System, for example, conducts automated, surgically precise repairs of under-road infrastructure with minimal site disturbance. Collaborative robots, or cobots, are robots with various levels of autonomy that work alongside people. Cobots typically include safety standards with double-redundant safeguards so that they don’t hurt anyone. The robots made for construction may be specially designed to navigate the uncertain and always-changing environment of an active worksite.

An example of on-site human-robot collaboration can be seen in Construction Robotics’ (CR) SAM100 (Semi-Autonomous Mason) bricklaying robot. This robotic system operates alongside construction workers to make their jobs quicker, less strenuous, and less repetitive. With the SAM100, the human mason owns the site setup and the final wall-quality assessment while the SAM distributes and places the individual masonry unit.

Autonomous Construction Equipment

Just as autonomous automobiles are coming to the streets, semiautonomous and autonomous construction equipment is coming to construction sites. Early models are already being tried, and experts predict that autonomous vehicles for construction will eventually be commonplace. Industries such as agriculture and mining have long benefited from equipment automation and remote control, and increasingly these types of machines are being deployed in construction. Like other forms of automation, this equipment offers the potential benefits of enhanced safety, increased productivity, and higher efficiency.

Automated construction equipment extends automation beyond a building’s individual parts and components and allows the industry to consider the jobsite a factory in the field. Working with construction engineering company Black & Veatch, San Francisco’s Built Robotics used its autonomous track loader, dozer, and excavator to explore automated trenching systems to accelerate utility-scale construction of renewable energy systems. Black & Veatch also teamed up with Honda to test an autonomous work vehicle on a solar construction site.

Heavy-equipment industry leaders such as Caterpillar are working on construction vehicles that will likely become fully autonomous but are currently semiautonomous. For example, Caterpillar’s remotely controlled D11T dozer has cameras onboard that a worker uses to operate the vehicle from a trailer hundreds of feet away. Caterpillar—along with Bechtel, Brick & Mortar Ventures, and others—worked with NASA to host the 3D-printed habitat challenge, focusing on 3D printing buildings on-site—the site happened to be Mars.

In Australia, Rio Tinto has deployed a fleet of more than 100 self-driving trucks and other vehicles to work on its iron-ore mining operations. Although it’s not yet a construction application, this example portends what’s on the horizon for construction. Rio Tinto’s driverless vehicles keep their remote operators—about 1,000 miles away—safe while maximizing precision and efficiency.

Boston Dynamics has commercialized a robotic platform for a variety of construction scenarios, including as-built laser scanning for inspection and construction scheduling. Its Spot autonomous quadruped can easily navigate a construction site every night with a Lidar scanning attachment to collect rich, high-fidelity point-cloud data tracking daily changes.

The future is bright for automation on the construction site as new typologies, technologies, and attitudes emerge. Even as more on-site equipment becomes automated, skilled labor is necessary to ensure things run smoothly, and new staging and sequencing strategies must take robots into account.Boston Dynamics' four-legged Spot robot.

Boston Dynamics’ Spot quadruped robot. Courtesy of Boston Dynamics.

Examples of Construction Automation


Headquartered in New Zealand, Howick has been building high-tech machinery for more than 40 years and is currently specializing in precision steel roll-forming machines that produce framing for construction. In a recent project, Windover Construction’s Virtual Design & Construction team used a Howick X-Tenda 3600 telescopic steel-framing machine to fabricate 935 predrilled, pre-labeled roof trusses in 15 hours for the Cape Ann YMCA in Gloucester, MA. Then, with the help of Fologram’s mixed-reality (MR) technology, which applies “holographic templates” to an MR headset user’s field of vision using connected 3D-model data, Windover assembled the trusses in three days with just one person working at a time, shaving about 70% off project time and cutting costs by about half. (Windover and Fologram are both members of the Autodesk Technology Centers’ Outsight Network.)

Howick’s machines simplify assembly by automating the production of complex roll-form parts out of a coil of steel and providing detailed assembly instructions within the parts. Howick and Virginia Tech’s Center for Design Research are deploying this equipment in remote areas of Zambia to reduce the production time of community medical clinics in from six months to six weeks.Howick’s precision steel roll-forming machines produce framing for construction.

Howick’s precision steel roll-forming machines produce framing for construction.


Vallejo, CA–based Factory_OS exemplifies industrialized construction by building multifamily apartment buildings—much of them designated as affordable or assistive housing—with maximum efficiency in a smart-factory setting. The company is constructing units on a 33-station assembly line. By leaning on proven manufacturing technology and construction processes, Factory_OS can build high-quality modular homes faster, at a lower cost, and with less waste than traditional on-site construction.

A team from Autodesk Research is working with Factory_OS on an ambitious project to make the production of affordable, sustainable housing as efficient as possible by improving the company’s connection from design to fabrication to assembly, and ultimately, to building operations.

Factory_OS uses QR codes to track all parts and assemblies, so when parts for a wall come off a saw, they’re all indexed and tracked. That’s all part of the manufacturing influence: repeatability, quality, taking the variability out. If you need 10 of those walls, the automated saw cuts 10 kits; a mobile robotic platform can deliver the kits to a framing station.

We are working to demonstrate a digital connection to Factory_OS’s design catalog in Autodesk Revit to create a multi-scale BIM model—that is, a multi-objective design optimization that allows control of the entire site, individual buildings, modules that together make up a building, all the way down to the components that make up the modules, all connected with generative design. Factory_OS then employs human-centered forms of automation to fabricate finished modules and load each module onto semitrucks to be transported to the local construction site.

On the building site, once grading is complete, workers pour a foundation and deliver finished modules from the factory with flooring, windows, lighting, appliances, plumbing fixtures and interior finishes all complete. Modules arrive watertight, fireproof, and shrink-wrapped. Workers then fasten them together, connect systems and utilities, and the building is ready to occupy. This new workflow will let Factory_OS complete the design and factory construction of a 200- to 300-unit multifamily apartment in just a few weeks.

Workers at Factory_OS in Vallejo, CA, carry panels designed for modular homes.

Workers at Factory_OS in Vallejo, CA, carry panels designed for modular homes.

Apis Cor

Apis Cor develops 3D printers and 3D-printing mixtures for efficiently constructing walls that mimic the design of traditional concrete masonry unit (CMU) walls, meeting the requirements of traditional CMU building codes.

In late 2019, Apis Cor 3D-printed a two-story, 640-square-meter government building in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The company produced a proprietary high-viscosity, gypsum-based 3D-printing mixture on location, and a crane moved its construction 3D printer around the site to complete the build, using only three workers. Since then, Apis Cor improved its 3D printer to build at least eight times faster and at half the cost of traditional masonry construction.

Apis Cor is a member of the Autodesk Technology Centers Outsight Network. The company is essentially a manufacturing firm making construction equipment and doing manufacturing on-site as a service. In these scenarios, one might contract the company to bring its machine to your site to produce a structure or part of a building; then, they move on to something else. The contract manufacturer supplies the design parameters, owns the equipment, and provides the service, not unlike contract manufacturing of products, except the factory comes to the site.

Apis Cor is collaborating with another Autodesk Technology Centers resident team, the structural engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti, which reviews the structural integrity of the 3D-printed walls and helps create standards for 3D-printed construction that, ideally, industry associations will accept into their building codes.



An Apis Cor 3D-printed structure takes shape. An Apis Cor 3D-printed structure takes shape. Courtesy of Apis Cor.


Sustainably harvested bamboo makes up the basis for BamCore’s custom-engineered, hollow-wall structural lumber system, and the company uses industrialized, data-driven digital construction tools to quickly and efficiently erect its wall panels on-site. Each custom-fabricated, engineered bamboo-wood hybrid panel is cut to fit into adjoining panels and is precut to accommodate every door, window, light switch, and outlet. Sequential numbers allow for precise installation. Color-coded lines indicate the position of every electrical and plumbing line.

On-site crew members get a 3D animated model of the project on a mobile app that transforms digital building models into sequenced animations, which they easily follow to build the walls. BamCore’s prefabrication from digital construction tools offer faster build times, fewer errors, less waste, and lower cost.

What Are the Benefits of Construction Automation?


Many of construction automation’s benefits are correlated and cascading so that focusing on increasing one benefit leads to experiencing additional benefits. Automation helps complete projects faster and more efficiently, which usually also results in environmental benefits and more sustainable construction. For example, Intelligent City in Vancouver, Canada, employs robotic automation on its prefabricated modular homes, with the result of 15% greater production efficiency, 38% faster completion, and 30% waste reduction. Global construction company Skanska uses on-site robot welding to fabricate steel reinforcement baskets, which has improved quality, employee productivity, and safety. It has also reduced the cost and environmental impact of transporting bulky finished reinforcement baskets to building sites.

Much needs to be done to revamp the construction industry toward sustainability and environmental friendliness. The construction and demolition sector of the US economy generates about 23% of the national waste stream, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. And buildings (both their construction and operation) account for almost 40% of global carbon-dioxide emissions, according to Architecture 2030. Fortunately, construction automation contributes to the sustainability initiatives of the industry in a variety of ways:

  • Automation technologies, such as drones, aid in the construction of renewable-energy facilities, such as wind turbines and solar roofs.
  • Off-site modular construction makes maximum use of materials by increasing recycling and decreasing waste material. Efficiently transporting off-site modules to jobsites can reduce the average miles that workers travel by 75%.
  • Electric construction heavy machinery, such as the Caterpillar all-electric 26-ton excavator, can reduce carbon emissions by as much as 52 tons from a single machine.
  • Because construction robotics tend to perform tasks faster and more accurately than people, they can cut down on production delays, which reduces pollution from running machinery and keeping a jobsite active. Their accuracy also reduces material waste from errors and rework.

With the population demands, it’s not overblown to call this a housing crisis. If people just keep building the way they’re building, the planet will be ruined. There’s literally not enough sand to make the amount of portland cement needed to meet the numbers. So people have to change the way they build.

Automation will play a part in new recycling abilities that can begin to address resource shortages. For example, the British nonprofit WRAP is working with Autodesk on recycling plate glass from buildings by crushing it in a hopper and melting it down to make clean new glass.

A construction robot assembles lumber structures.

Automation helps complete projects faster and more efficiently, which usually also results in environmental benefits and more sustainable construction.

Reduced Labor-Shortage Gap

Two recent surveys conducted by ABB Robotics and the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), in partnership with Autodesk, confirmed the magnitude of the labor shortage in construction:

  • 80% of construction firms have a hard time filling hourly craft positions.
  • 91% of construction businesses expect to face a skills crisis during the next 10 years.
  • 45% of construction firms say the local pipeline for training skilled workers is poor.

Addressing the labor shortage in construction will take a variety of initiatives, such as reintroducing trade education into middle and high schools. However, increasing the use of construction automation can have a combined effect of lessening the reliance on traditional skills, whose experts are retiring, and attracting younger workers who are accustomed to and excited by working with advanced technology. In fact, 81% of the respondents of the ABB Robotics survey plan to implement or increase their use of construction automation within the next 10 years. That strategy also helps companies make the most of the employees they do have by giving them the technology they need to be 100% efficient.

But machines don’t automate jobs; they automate tasks. For example, instead of drilling holes, a person’s job may be to work with and maintain a faster, more accurate hole-drilling robot. Introducing such technology is also likely to increase the base pay for workers with the necessary skills. And instead of automation shrinking the number of jobs, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company expects an additional 200 million construction jobs by 2030 if countries commit to improving infrastructure and affordable housing.

For those reasons, construction automation will have to come in conjunction with new strategies for lifelong, personalized education that upskills and reskills workers throughout their careers, subsidized by construction firms and/or governments. Already half of the general contractors from the AGC/Autodesk survey reported being engaged with career-building programs.


In addition, universities are responding to the emerging opportunities for new career paths related to automation. Schools such as ETH Zurich, University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon, and others have created specialized undergraduate and graduate programs focusing on the automated future of the construction industry.

Increased Safety

The construction industry is known as one of the more dangerous industries for workers. In 2019, 1.7% of American construction workers missed work due to injury, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, and about 20% of all American worker fatalities were in construction, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

By automating more construction processes and tasks with off-site industrialized construction, drones, autonomous robots, and more, the industry can protect more people from the risks that cause most construction injuries and fatalities, such as falls and collisions with objects. Robots can also handle larger and heavier loads and work in spaces that are unsafe for people.

Automation and industrialized construction can bring more construction processes into controlled environments, with less risk to human safety.

Automation and industrialized construction can bring more construction processes into controlled environments, with less risk to human safety. There are factories in Sacramento, CA, that run lights-out 24/7 with no humans in them. That’s a very safe environment when people aren’t around. If automation can force things indoors or make things easier to assemble on-site, it lessens the risk from things you can’t control.

Improved Efficiency and Production

McKinsey & Company notes that in the United States from 1947 to 2010, productivity in construction hardly increased while manufacturing productivity multiplied by more than eight. That time period coincided with a great effort to automate manufacturing, and by its end, there was still a glut of unfilled manufacturing jobs as automation created demand for skilled labor. McKinsey also predicts that construction automation is likely to increase productivity while not depleting construction job opportunities. The examples of construction automation’s efficiency seem to bear out that prediction.

Automation at the architectural design stage uses artificial intelligence (AI) functions such as predictive design to fulfill mundane tasks and allow the designer to spend more time on creativity. And data collected from construction automation and shared digitally helps different teams collaborate in new ways.

But perhaps the greatest benefits to efficiency are conferred at the actual construction stage. Examples in Great Britain include Ilke Homes, which prefabricates steel frames and modular units in a factory that is safer and more secure than a construction site and then installs them on-site faster and cheaper than building houses from scratch. And Construction Automation says that its Automated Brick Laying Robot builds its brick-and-block homes with increased productivity, improved health and safety performance, lower costs, and guaranteed quality.

Expanded Insight and Analysis Through Data Collection

By its nature, construction automation leaves a trail of data; properly analyzing and making changes according to that data can reduce risk, increase profits, and save time and materials. Conversely, bad data—which is inaccurate, incomplete, or inconsistent—is estimated to have cost the global construction industry $1.85 trillion in 2020 alone. Construction-management software can help wrangle and analyze data quickly and accurately.

Unfortunately, a majority of customers in the field today design and create a building, then retain very little information they can contribute toward the next project. A lot of architecture firms think about their projects as snowflakes: Every one’s unique; they all start from scratch. That’s highly inefficient. If people start construction projects from scratch every time, they’ll never have that intelligence to drive effective automation.

Rather, the goal should be to collect enough data from construction automation to apply toward future projects by knowing what went right and wrong, what may have failed on the machine side, and what people did well so that every successive project is a fraction more efficient. Repeating this process will develop a collaborative AI and human-based system that gets smarter as it is constantly refreshed, resulting in both the human knowledge and machine knowledge getting richer and each project going better.

An engineer consults a tablet as he works alongside a construction robot.

Continually applying collected construction data to new projects improves human and AI collaboration.

Increased Predictability and Better Quality

Standard construction processes for inspection and permitting are inefficient when compared to manufacturing. Once a manufacturer proves that it can build something repeatedly at a certain predictable level of quality, it receives a United Laboratories (UL) Listing, which is an inspection approval. The more the construction industry adopts automation and industrialized construction, the more it can cut down on the inspection process while relying on repeatable, predictable quality building components.

Factory_OS has done a really good job at having inspectors on-site who work for the county but who stay at the factory for when they’re needed. They inspect all of the processes that Factory_OS has invented and standardized.


Industrialized construction makes large-scale projects easier when components are standardized. If a building needs, for example, 2,000 plumbing walls or a large number of bathroom pods, an off-site manufacturer can prefabricate those components in advance, store them, and deliver them to the site exactly when they’re needed. Not having to wait for the materials, supplies, and labor to source components allows large projects to proceed on schedule. And if those components are standardized (with degrees of customizability), a building project can scale up in size with less difficulty.

A construction worker checks a building model on a tablet at the jobsite.

Construction automation inherently collects a lot of data. The key is to use that data to figure out what went right, what went wrong, and how to improve upon processes for the next project.

What Is the Future of Construction Automation?

As the manufacturing sector has shown, once automation reaches a threshold of adoption, there’s a point of no return when businesses of a certain size must implement automation to stay competitive. ABB Robotics’s global survey found that only 55% of construction companies use robotics as of 2021 (which is lower in the United States)—but given the stated interest in implementing construction automation, the skills shortage, and the push to improve sustainability in construction, heavy adoption of automation and robotics will likely become the norm in construction before too long. But how will that adoption look?

For one thing, construction automation will continue to adapt manufacturing technologies for shaping the built environment. Autodesk’s affordable, sustainable housing project with Factory_OS will continue exploring advanced manufacturing technologies for producing volumetric modular construction. The Autodesk Technology Centers are also involved with several other companies working in construction-automation innovation, including working with Factory_OS to develop an innovation lab to deploy more automation technologies into its factory.

Shimizu’s latest deployed robot, the Robo-Buddy Floor, is an industrial robotic system that assists craftspeople with installing raised flooring. Another element of the Shimizu Smart Site is a three-robot team where one robot takes materials, such as drywall, to a robotic elevator that moves things up to a third robot that unloads the elevator. If you squint your eyes, that’s an automated manufacturing facility. It just happens to go vertically as well as horizontally. Shimizu’s system essentially views the entire building site as a factory. It has different interconnected robotic technologies that treat construction as a system of interconnected rather than distinct trades.

A robotic system helps craftspeople install raised flooring.

Shimizu’s Robo-Buddy Floor robotic system helps craftspeople install raised flooring. Courtesy of Shimizu.

Construction automation is starting to move in a direction like distributed manufacturing, where sophisticated automation aids on-site assembly like Shimizu’s Smart Site with ever-improving modular, prefabricated industrialized construction like Factory_OS. While distinct from construction automation, industrialized construction plays a role in potential for automation to improve the way things are built.

A lot of the same things that are challenging manufacturing—productivity, labor shortage, material waste, production time—are the same problems as in the building industry. Automation has been the way the manufacturing industry has solved, or is attempting to solve, all of those things. Now, construction automation is poised to tackle the mounting challenges in developing the built environment.

It’s clear that during the past 50 years, construction automation has grown significantly—and it’s in a prime position to help solve some of the problems plaguing the current construction industry. It will help address the skilled-labor gap by attracting younger workers who are excited by advanced technology. It can help make jobsites safer for all workers and increase insight and analysis through data collection. And perhaps most importantly, it can help tackle the housing crisis. Construction has been notoriously environmentally unfriendly, and with the global population on the rise, designing and building more sustainable structures—using things like automation technologies, off-site modular construction, robotics, and electric construction equipment—can help make a better world for many generations to come.

Special thanks to Nathan King, DDes, Global Technology Centers Network Team Lead at Autodesk; and freelance technology writer Markkus Rovito, both of whom helped compose this article.

Digitally Preserving Brazil’s Ipiranga Museum Is a Model of Collaboration

Digitally Preserving Brazil’s Ipiranga Museum Is a Model of Collaboration

preserving Brazil’s Ipiranga Museum

Museu do Ipiranga today. Courtesy of Museu do Ipiranga.  

  • World monuments are being digitally captured and preserved to guard against losses from deterioration, climate change, and accidents.
  • Brazil’s Museu do Ipiranga has undergone extensive scanning to create a digital copy.
  • This cloud-based replica of the museum can be shared with Brazil and the world, preserving valuable history.

For generations of Brazilian schoolchildren, Ipiranga isn’t just a place or a museum—it’s a central part of their country’s history. The first line of the country’s national anthem references the banks of the Ipiranga River, where Brazil’s independence from Portugal was first declared on Sept. 7, 1822. Decades later, in 1884, Italian architect Tommaso Bezzi designed a thrillingly eclectic palace for the site, modeled in part after Versailles. This palace would become Museu do Ipiranga, a center of national heritage and art and, eventually, a field-trip destination.

Solange Lima, the museum’s former director and current president of its cultural and extension commission, first encountered the striking facade, eclectic interior, and unmatched art collection inside on a formative field trip that inspired her to become a professor and curator. She wants to share the sense of excitement she felt as a student with others in Brazil and around the world, a goal that’s becoming a reality through a unique technological collaboration that culminated with a copy of this national landmark in the cloud.

preserving Brazil’s Ipiranga Museum digital model
A digital model of the museum and surrounding parkland.

Preserving Brazil’s Ipiranga Museum starts with understanding its role in the country’s culture. “This wasn’t built to be a museum; it was built to be a monument,” Lima says, speaking about the 125-year-old ornamental structure, a brick-and-wood beauty that has started to show its age. “This is a palace to celebrate Brazil.”

Right Palace, Right Time

In partnership with the museum and Faro, a global imaging firm, a team from Autodesk laser-scanned the entire building and surrounding Independência Park. During 2020, special laser scanners captured architectural details, acres of historic landscaping, and 50 items from the collection to preserve and present the museum to a wider audience.

The project benefitted from perfect timing. Also known as the Museu Paulista, the Museu do Ipiranga closed in August 2013 due in part to water damage and the risk of ceiling collapse. A nearly decade-long closure and renovation, concluding right before the country’s bicentennial in 2022, has provided a perfect window of opportunity to create a digital copy of the irreplaceable building.

The reimagined space will have more room to display the crown jewels of the museum’s 450,000-item collection. Lima regrets that a “generation of schoolkids” have missed the chance to see the museum in person during the past decade but is overjoyed about the potential to share the new version, including a digital Ipiranga in the cloud and educational video games featuring the museum’s model.

preserving Brazil’s Ipiranga Museum point cloud
A point cloud of the museum and surrounding grounds, containing 2.3 billion points.

A New Wave of Digital Preservation

Creating a digital model of the museum is one of the latest and most high-profile examples of a new wave of digital preservation to save the world’s landmarks. These complicated data-capturing and modeling efforts are growing more urgent as climate change threatens regions, landmark buildings age, and recent accidents underscore the need for digital backups. In 2018, Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro caught fire, consuming a collection of 20 million invaluable artifacts. Autodesk teams have also helped create models of the Eiffel Tower in Paris and may soon expand their work to other Brazilian sites, such as famed modernist architecture by Lina Bo Bardi.

The technical challenges at Ipiranga were immense, and the effort required a suite of software tools to capture, organize, sort, and display the exceptional amount of data. A point cloud assembled from laser scans and images stitched together from drone photogrammetry contained 2.3 billion points, with precision to 3.7 mm. Translating all that raw data into a usable digital model required a number of steps and applications, including Autodesk BIM 360, ReCap Pro, Civil 3D, InfraWorks, and Revit.

According to Vinicius Barros and Marcelo Laguna, part of the Autodesk team that oversaw the journey from images to software to a model, the process ultimately resulted in a 13GB interactive image in the cloud. “Ipiranga Museum will be a significant case for how digital transformation can help public owners better manage historic assets,” says Fernanda Machado, an Autodesk architect and BIM (Building Information Modeling) specialist who managed the scanning and modeling process. “It’s a protected landmark, so it’s a huge challenge and achievement to be able to preserve it in this new way.”

preserving Brazil’s Ipiranga Museum under construction in 1888
The museum under construction in 1888. Courtesy of Museu do Ipiranga.

“When we started the work, I understood how powerful this project could be,” adds Autodesk’s Pedro Soethe, who co-led the project with Machado. “Since our initial discussions with the museum project team, we knew we wanted to provide a more extensive view of the project. So we didn’t just focus on the museum building but also the park where the museum is, which is a beautiful park. In addition, we included all of the museum’s surroundings, including streets and trees, to show how they all work in the city’s context.”

Future Benefits: Architecture and Education

Exploring the digital models of the museum is exciting, but the utility goes well beyond the imagery. The museum doesn’t have any remaining accurate blueprints from its original set created by Bezzi: Digital scanning means that future structural slants, shifts, or warping can be precisely detected, ideally with enough time for proactive repairs that are less intrusive and expensive. Despite its monumentality, the museum is still a precise and somewhat fragile structure; curators haven’t installed air conditioning in the building’s exhibition rooms, for example, because it would require damaging the unique architecture.

The museum and surrounding protected historical landscape will also be digitally accessible, helping schoolkids across Brazil and beyond experience the building. “We’re a little afraid that there’s so much expectation around this,” Lima says. “Everybody wants to see where independence was proclaimed and view the new exhibitions in a renewed and accessible building.”

Ipiranga and the surrounding landscape have grown up with Sao Paulo. At the end of the 19th century, the neoclassical palace was on the outskirts of the relatively small town. Now, the megalopolis has grown up around the site; with the new digital model, it’s now accessible from anywhere in Brazil and the rest of the world. “This is going to have a huge impact,” Lima says. “This allows us to diffuse the collection through digital culture.”


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Two Years In — Autodesk’s Assistance to Notre-Dame in Paris

Two Years In — Autodesk’s Assistance to Notre-Dame in Paris

The world watched in shock as Paris’ most famous cathedral, Notre-Dame de Paris, was caught in raging flames on 15 April 2019. A fire had started in the attic, and this ancient landmark had no sprinkler systems to combat such an event automatically. Despite a series of human errors that delayed the French firefighters from arriving faster, in the end, the iconic cathedral, whose name in French is Our Lady of Paris, was spared, sans a beautiful spire and large sections of its wooden-framed lead roof.

Notre-Dame de Paris, in raging flames on 15 April 2019, showing the nearly complete destruction of its wooden-frame lead-coated roof. (Gilbert Bochenek, CC-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons.)

Notre-Dame was actually under repair with steel scaffolding connected to its body. Much of this melted under the intense heat, adding to the complexity of restoring the cathedral. While the world responded with outpours of sympathy, multiple large global corporations made significant financial donations and offered technical services and assistance to the effort. Autodesk was among these companies, joining companies like Apple.

“Straight away, our CEO Andrew Anagnost felt very emotional about this situation, and we wanted to do something to help with the cathedral,” says Emmanuel Di Giacomo, Autodesk BIM Ecosystem Manager for Europe. “In addition to our cash donation, we also thought we could help in the reconstruction, and we felt that BIM (Building Information Modeling) could certainly help to accelerate the process,” he adds.

Straight away, our CEO Andrew Anagnost felt very emotional about this situation, and we wanted to do something to help with the cathedral.

And acceleration was going to be an essential element in Notre-Dame’s reconstruction efforts as French President Emmanuel Macron had declared that the restoration should be completed in less than five years, in time for the Paris summer Olympic Games in 2024. I asked Di Giacomo if, after two years in the project was on track. “Honestly, I think the project is on track,” he says, noting that recently the reconstruction team had selected the trees that will ultimately become its new roof.

After two years—and with a three-month pause in efforts due to the global COVID-19 pandemic—the Safety Phase is complete, and the Reconstruction Phases have begun. Critical to all these efforts are accurate recordings of what was there—something achieved with pre-fire and post-fire laser point-cloud scans—and an accurate BIM model to help in orchestrating the work. This is where Autodesk felt it could provide the most assistance.

The push for BIM

Autodesk had already created an amazingly detailed BIM model in Autodesk Revit before it announced its official patronage with the public establishment dedicated to the restoration of Notre-Dame cathedral.

Notre Dame BIM

Notre-Dame de Paris, the BIM model inside Autodesk Revit software. The model was produced by a specialized team at Autodesk and is part of the company’s technical assistance to the reconstruction. The company also contributed to the worldwide and corporate cash donations for the cathedral, which today total over 1 billion USD.

The BIM model creation was a challenging affair because Paris’s most famous cathedral was never well documented in 2D drawings. Initially built in the 12th century, master builders primarily constructed buildings without drawings, sometimes using miniature models from clay as guidance. And in the many centuries since its completion, there were never many official building survey-created drawing documents covering the entire gothic masterpiece.

“When we started to work on the creation of a BIM model for Notre Dame, we partnered with a local company with specialization in point cloud technology called AGP,” says Emmanuel Di Giacomo, Autodesk BIM Ecosystem Manager for Europe. “Working a full year on this model was a big challenge, but it led to a very positive outcome when it came time to meet with the EPRND (the French public establishment charged with the restoration and conservation of the cathedral),” says Di Giacomo. “We were able to show them how this BIM model would help them accelerate the construction process.”

When you look at the cathedral in pictures, it doesn’t seem that big, but when you are on-site, it’s huge, and it’s completely distorted as you can imagine because it has been evolving through centuries.

While Autodesk achieved building and contributing an accurate BIM model to the reconstruction process, the effort proved challenging in many surprising ways. For starters, Notre-Dame is a massive stone structure measuring well over 1300 feet from end to end, and given its size and degree of detail, the modeling efforts are enormous. “When you look at the cathedral in pictures, it doesn’t seem that big, but when you are on-site, it’s huge,” says Di Giacomo, “and it’s completely distorted as you can imagine because it has been evolving through the centuries.”

Notre Dame BIM model

The Notre-Dame de Paris BIM model in this image shows elements used as part of the construction process, such as the low structures in the main court (right side). BIM is useful to construction logistics planning.

“We have been using lots of [Revit] families and adaptive components,” says Di Giacomo,” who adds there were more than 12,450 objects that were created for the BIM model. And of the 180 vaults in the cathedral, what the teams have learned as reality capture cloud technology was deployed to record what is there, they now know that every single vault is different, even if ever so slightly.

While the French architects charged with the restoration of this Gothic masterpiece are far less interested in digital technologies than the elite Revit team Autodesk has provided to the project, in the end, the EPRND and its teams know they are gaining three primary benefits from the BIM model.

The Notre-Dame de Paris BIM model in this image shows the main component blocks of the structure, isolating the roof (top) and spire, which largely burned down, from the main body of the nave with supporting walls, buttresses, and vaults (middle), and then the base of the building and interior columns (bottom).

“First of all, the BIM model can help with site logistics, like knowing where to place cranes and where workers and materials enter the site,” says Di Giacomo. “Next, the BIM model can help with construction logistics and quantity takeoff,” he adds, an activity that involves planning and sequencing the construction work and dealing with safety and risk management. And finally, the BIM model is used for collaboration when harnessed in Autodesk’s BIM 360 collaboration platform, helping streamline the workflows between planning, construction, and exchanges between build and owner stakeholder groups.

The spire and the roof

The horrible fire that engulfed the Paris landmark back in 2019 caused the nearly complete loss of the wood timber roof structure and the total loss of the wooden spire designed by 19th Century master architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. While there was much debate and speculative design visions for the future of the great cathedral—including an international design competition for a new spire that French President Emmanuel Macron later abandoned—on 9 July 2020, the decision was made to rebuild a spire identical to the one that existed.

Notre Dame BIM model

The Notre-Dame de Paris spire was completely destroyed in the fire. It was the one element that was not modeled in Revit, but rather Autodesk Maya software.

The ornate le-Duc designed spire is the one element of the BIM model that was not modeled in Revit. Instead, Emmanuel Di Giacomo says, “the spire of the cathedral was modeled with Autodesk Maya.”

The cathedral roof—one of the significant areas of damage on Notre-Dame—is constructed of wood timbers with lead roofing. “One of the biggest parts of the reconstruction is the roof itself,” says Di Giacomo. “They have already chosen the trees,” with the selection process initiated in January of this year. More than 1,000 French oaks from over 200 French forests, both private and public, are destined to replace large roof sections and replace le-Duc’s beautiful spire. The oak for the spire itself was felled back in March in a once royal forest in the Loire region.

The French oaks from royal forests all over France are a source of large oaks used in the cathedral’s timber roof framing. (Romain Perrot, CC-SA 4.0, Wikipedia Commons). Les chênes de la Forêt de Bercé

To keep on schedule, all the French oak needed for the project needed to be cut by the end of March to avoid tree sap and moisture entering the wood fibers. The lumber is now drying in facilities and will do so for 18 months.

BIM to Digital Twin

With the selection of the trees on schedule and other elements of the project on track, things look promising for Notre-Dame’s restoration schedule. Every element may not be complete by the 2024 Olympic Games, but the cathedral itself has a good chance of re-welcoming visitors come summertime in 2024.

I think the first subject we wanted to learn more about focused on the modeling capabilities of Revit, in the context of a historical monument; we have definitely learned where the software is and what we should do next. This was very exciting and meaningful for us.

Having a BIM model will help the restoration teams hit that Macron deadline as they solve numerous issues involved with making the cathedral safer from such fires in the future. Di Giacomo says that the reconstruction team wants to use all the cavities in various parts of the cathedral to run all the wiring and fire-protection systems. The group may use BIM to implement that process.

The BIM model, of course, can become a critical component of implementing a Digital Twin of Notre-Dame de Paris after reconstruction. “We told the Archbishop that they could use the BIM model to connect with sensors to help protect the future of the cathedral,” he says. Di Giacomo says that Autodesk is trying to convince the multiple parties that have a stake in Notre-Dame to do this. “If this does happen,” he says, “there would be an official tender because when a contract is over 100,000 Euros in France, they must make a tender.”

The Notre-Dame de Paris BIM model was entirely modeled in Revit, including the complex rose windows, with the exception of the spire.

While Autodesk has new Digital Twin software offerings, like its new Autodesk Tandem platform, Di Giacomo says that several French and European companies would likely pursue such a tender. “There are companies like VINCI Facilities’ TwinOps of France and CapGemini with Reflect IoD or ENGIE’s BLM, each of them top companies with solutions built on Autodesk Forge,” says Di Giacomo.

Lessons for the future

I asked Di Giacomo what Autodesk has learned through their work in building the Notre-Dame BIM model. “I think the first subject we wanted to learn more about focused on the modeling capabilities of Revit,” he notes, adding that “in the context of a historical monument, we have definitely learned where the software is and what we should do next. This was very exciting and meaningful for us.”

“We also learned a lot about the performance of the software as we worked on the building,” he says. “This model is huge at nearly 1 gigabyte of data, and we were surprised to find that Revit was reacting pretty well to such a large complex model.” Di Giacomo adds that there are things particular to old monuments, old architecture that gives them ideas for the future.

And as for the future of Our Lady of Paris? With good luck and a reconstruction teamed benefitting from key Autodesk BIM technologies, the summer of 2024 may see Olympic attendees witnessing more than just record-breaking athletes but the reconstruction of an ancient masterpiece of architecture in record time.

Ready to discover how BIM can transform your team’s workflow?

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The (Roche) Tower of Basel: Designing Switzerland’s New Tallest Building

The (Roche) Tower of Basel: Designing Switzerland’s New Tallest Building

After its official inauguration in May 2022, Roche Tower 2 in Basel will be, at 673 feet, the tallest building in Switzerland. It is significantly taller than Tower 1, which is 584 feet high.
Courtesy of Beat Ernst.
  • Pharmaceutical firm Roche is building its new headquarters: a skyscraper that’s set to become Switzerland’s tallest tower.
  • Thanks to digital tools, the building—named Roche Tower 2—will be finished ahead of schedule.
  • The Tower 2 project is exemplary both in terms of sustainability and that every step of construction involved a digital twin.

Whether you’re on one of the bridges that cross the Rhine in Basel, Switzerland, or exploring the city’s Old Town, you’ll clearly see the twin towers that are home to the corporate headquarters of Roche, one of the world’s most successful pharmaceutical companies.

Roche Tower 1 was completed in 2015. Tower 2 is currently under construction. At 584 feet, Tower 1 is still officially the tallest building in Switzerland, even though its younger sibling is  shaping up to be much taller. On the day of its inauguration, Tower 2, which will be 673 feet tall, will become the new record holder. The tower will be 53 stories high and will house more than 3,400 Roche employees.

Scheduled for May 2022, the inauguration of the new office tower comes a year after Roche’s 125th anniversary celebration. When the company was founded in 1896, the entire surrounding area was fields and meadows. Clearly, a lot has changed.

The new office block stands at an angle to its elder sibling and features the same tapering staircase design. The two towers now dominate the Roche site, and feasibility studies are being conducted for a third building. If realized, the third skyscraper of the set will soar 66 feet higher than Tower 2.

The digital twin is used during every phase of the project. Everyone on the construction site has access to the 3D target model via tablet and Autodesk BIM 360 software.
The digital twin is used during every phase of the project. Everyone on the construction site has access to the 3D target model via tablet and Autodesk BIM 360. Courtesy of Beat Ernst.

The Roche Tower 2: Tapping the Power of BIM

Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron is responsible for both Roche Towers 1 and 2. Roche, Herzog & de Meuron, and general contractor Drees & Sommer all worked together on Tower 1.

Jörg Keller, project manager for Tower 2 at Roche, is responsible for the technical commissioning of all facilities in the new building, is in charge of safety, and wears a “third hat” as BIM (Building Information Modeling) subject matter expert. He and the project team are responsible for all collaborative planning. Thanks to their work, even before the various stories of Tower 2 went up, it was possible to explore every floor right up to the roof in its digital twin.

The client, architect, general contractor, and construction companies all wanted to use BIM on the project from the start. “It always takes people who are very enthusiastic and 100% committed to making it happen,” Keller says. By “it,” he means BIM or a collaboration using BIM methods and a 3D virtual model. “A 3D model was created for Tower 1, but it was nowhere near as advanced as the model for Tower 2,” says Keller.

The digital model began taking shape a year and a half before the shell was completed, and Autodesk Revit was one of the software programs used to create it.

Teams accustomed to working with traditional models can be hesitant to embrace groundbreaking technology and techniques. “Naturally, some employees were more passive,” Keller says. “But I was surprised to see this had less to do with age than attitude.” Convincing the future operators of the building proved difficult. “You often get people saying they can do everything with 2D drawings and that they don’t need a 3D model,” he says.

Winning Over Stakeholders With a Virtual Tour

It was, however, easier to convince the decision makers at Roche. To get their buy-in, Keller used a computer-based virtual model and virtual reality (VR) goggles. A virtual tour of a building still under construction has a definite wow effect. Inviting key stakeholders on a VR tour made it possible to convince them things were on the right track early on.

Although a VR tour might have provided a site manager or real estate manager with a spectacular experience, in the end, it was also a series of hard facts that proved the proponents of BIM right and convinced the doubters. The 3D model helped teams efficiently complete the project with a higher degree of quality during the entire preparation and construction phase.

A Visible Sign of Change: Tablets Replace Blueprints

Keller was responsible for the commissioning of Tower 1 and has been part of the new building project from the beginning. He and a colleague were even given the honor of lowering a time capsule into the foundation at the groundbreaking ceremony on June 11, 2018. In it were a Basel daily newspaper, invitations for the guests of honor, a USB stick, and printed building plans. The fact that 2D blueprints were buried might also have a somewhat symbolic meaning, as paper blueprints were being used less and less in the real-world construction project.

“The one difference to the Tower 1 project everyone can see is that, back then, I was the only one on site with an iPad,” Keller says. “During the construction of Tower 2, on the other hand, you’ll regularly see project managers, employees, and the various contractors with a tablet in their hand.”

The Digital Twin: A Constant Companion to all Tower 2 Phases

The benefits of digital simulation became apparent at the beginning of the project, even before the construction companies got to work:

Perfect Preparation for Subcontractors

The model was made available to all the companies involved in the various construction processes even before the contract was signed. This meant they could calculate the required quantities of materials such as concrete and steel in advance.

Improved Detail

Thanks to the digital twin, many more building details can be modeled in advance. A construction worker on site, for example, can clearly see where a socket will be installed in the wall and where the cables should run.

Minimized Errors and Less Subsequent Work

Planning errors can be detected in the 3D model instead of discovered on site.

Faster Construction

At a time when delays and skyrocketing costs are so common in the construction industry, completing stages of a construction project of this magnitude faster than anticipated is a groundbreaking achievement. Although the building won’t be complete until 2022, Tower 2’s shell is already complete. The last concrete was poured on the shell on Dec. 1, 2020: two months ahead of time!

Planning Reliability and Transparency

The digital twin provided a common basis for monitoring the progress of construction for both the project team at Roche and Omnicon, the company responsible for construction management. The team led by Marc Rüstig, project manager, construction management at Roche, linked the plan to the fourth dimension: time. “It’s simple to visualize even the most complex construction processes,” he says. The 2,800 facade elements, for example, were delivered just in time, preventing a backlog of materials on the construction site.

Centralized Information

“While working on Tower 1, everyone noted open items in their own lists in Word or Excel or wrote them down on a pad,” Keller says. “Today, everything is centrally bundled in [Autodesk] BIM 360 and everyone has access to the same information.” The architectural team at Herzog & de Meuron also sees a major advantage in providing more project stakeholders with access to clear, up-to-date information. They explain that information is less ambivalent in a BIM model than in exchanged drawings, which results in less room to interpret information and the ability to coordinate with reference to unambiguous, machine-readable information. They also highlight that this, in turn, places high demands on the quality of the model in terms of accuracy, validity, and depth of information.

Tablets Provide Quality Assurance

Everyone from the foreman coordinating the formwork and the worker laying pipes or installing elevators to the construction-management PM monitoring progress use the simulation created with BIM 360 Field for comparison. “Deviations are documented and digitally tracked,” Rüstig says in a video he posted on LinkedIn. In just under three-and-a-half minutes, he shows how digital tools can be used to achieve precision in major construction projects.

3D views of the three submodels: the structural model (left), the engineering model (center), and the architectural model (right).
3D views of the three submodels: the structural model (left), the engineering model (center), and the architectural model (right). Courtesy of Roche.

BIM Thrives on Collaboration

Although BIM is gaining popularity in the construction industry, Herzog & de Meuron says that complete digital twins are still an exception. One hurdle the core project team had to overcome was coordinating how data is exchanged and how to ensure data isn’t lost.

“Data loss is a major risk,” Keller says. He believes that devoting sufficient time to defining the rules as early as the concept phase pays off. Herzog & de Meuron architects emphasize that technology is only one aspect of this process, explaining that it is also necessary to define common goals, resolve conflicts, and align the various capacities of stakeholders.

And it shouldn’t be forgotten that the subcontractors responsible for the various aspects of construction must also be able to deal with BIM and digital models. “You need to be able to maintain and subsequently adjust the model,” Keller says. “The general contractor assisted the firms that had less BIM experience.”

Using a 3D model results in more work being shifted to the beginning of the project, but all those involved in the construction process and all future operators benefit from the fact that the building has been created virtually. Keller is convinced the Roche Tower team worked “faster and more efficiently with BIM.”

3D Model Paves the Way for Smart Building

It’s only after the building is up and running that the virtual model really plays its trump card. More and more information is added to the digital twin as the construction project progresses, paving the way for more efficient, sustainable operation of the building. It is possible to store all relevant technical data, which then can be retrieved later on by owners and maintenance teams.

Once the building has been commissioned, the twin, created using Revit and BIM 360, can be used for tasks such as predictive maintenance. The elevators are equipped with sensors, so if the system notices an irregularity, it initiates a test. The live data in the virtual model can also be used to monitor energy and drinking-water consumption. Roche wants to use an energy monitoring system to prove that Tower 2 will consume about 10% less energy than comparable buildings in Europe.

The tower’s building-maintenance app has useful functions at the ready for those who work there. One example is a search function that can be used to locate any employee, which Keller identifies as “quite clever when you’ve got 3,400 employees spread across 41 office floors.” The app also makes things easier for the cleaning team, who can see which offices have actually been used.

The Roche Tower will be one of Europe’s most sustainable buildings. —using carpeting made from old fishing nets, for example.
The Roche Tower will be one of Europe’s most sustainable buildings by using carpeting made from old fishing nets, for example. Courtesy of Beat Ernst.

Fishing-Net Carpets

Sustainability played an important role for Roche even before construction began. The company had more than 900 building materials tested for possible contaminants. In the future, every cleared material that has been used will even have its own passport.

The passport will contain information such as how much of the building material is recyclable. The total figure is currently at 58%. Another example of outstanding sustainability is the use of recycled fishing nets to create carpeting. This is a practical realization of the cradle-to-cradle principle, according to which materials are returned to the material cycle with equal value.

Once construction is completed, it won’t just be the height of the Roche Tower that attracts attention. Its completion will prove that the use of digital tools can increase quality and productivity during construction. The virtual model will also create the conditions for energy-saving operation, allowing the tower to set new standards in terms of sustainability. Roche Tower 2 will remain a flagship project for a long time to come, even if Tower 3 ultimately claims its title of Switzerland’s tallest building.