Build: Technology is advancing the ways we create, and experience, our spaces

How Dubai Is Printing Its Way to the Future

Dubai, traditionally known as an oil hub, is redefining its economy through 3D printing.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has experienced one of the great population booms of the last century, tripling from 3 million citizens in 2000 to almost 9.2 million in 2016. The population of its largest city, Dubai, has more than doubled since 2005. And that growth has spurred new construction.

In the midst of this building boom, Dubai decided to become the world’s 3D-printing hub by 2030. According to the Dubai Future Foundation, the city has set all sorts of ambitious goals to reach by then, including that 25 percent of all Dubai’s buildings will be 3D printed by 2030.

Exploring what happens when possibility becomes reality.

The use of 3D printing, which is more formally known as additive manufacturing, in Dubai’s construction and building sector will increase by 2 percent in 2019. The focus will be on 3D printing lighting products, bases and foundations, construction joints, mobile homes, parks, galleries, stores, and residential villas.

In 2016, using a custom cement mixture as source material, Dubai used a 3D printer measuring 20 feet high, 120 feet long, and 40 feet wide with an automated robotic arm to construct the 2,700-square-foot space they call the Office of the Future. Construction took 17 days, cost $140,000, and employed 18 people—a 50 percent decrease of normal labor costs.

“This is an experience we present to the world on utilizing future technology in people’s lives,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, at the opening of the Office of the Future.

And that technology will reach their lives in ways that go well beyond the buildings in which people live and work. Dubai officials and businesses also plan to print 2.8 billion consumer products and 1.7 billion medical products by 2025, including goods ranging from jewelry and household items to teeth, bones, and artificial organs.

To better assess what products and utilities citizens need most, cities are using cloud-based analytics and Internet of Things–enabled devices and sensors. Additive manufacturing lets them fill their citizens’ needs more quickly.

There are also local economic reasons for this push for 3D printing, of course. Officials estimate that this focus on 3D-printing technology will cut construction costs by 50 to 70 percent and labor costs by 50 to 80 percent, allowing construction to keep pace with rapid population growth. It also makes geographic sense, as Dubai is surrounded by an essentially unlimited amount of sand, which can be used as source material for 3D printers.

But there’s also a sense of scale in the goal of making the city a leader in 3D printing. If Dubai can prove that 3D printing on a citywide scale is feasible in a fast, safe, cost-efficient way, other countries or private construction companies will be more willing to adopt the technology themselves. In turn, that could lower global construction prices, making everything from simple shelters to commercial buildings more accessible. It would also create a safer industry: The International Labour Organization estimates that 60,000 workers are killed on construction sites each year. This number could be cut dramatically if 3D printing becomes ubiquitous in the construction industry.

Every emerging technology needs a first adopter. If Dubai can prove a functional model while meeting its ambitious goals, it could change the lives of not just citizens in its rapidly expanding city, but of the world.

The Possibility Report is an ongoing series about how technology is changing our understanding of the world around us. This article is part of BUILD, our discussion on how emerging technologies promise to change the way we design, create, and experience the places we live and work, from city centers to the remote villages of tomorrow.