3D printing, originally referred to as rapid prototyping, is a process in which a digital file is used to create a three-dimensional solid object. 3D printers are automatically controlled, follow reprogrammable instructions generated by computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software and have at least three axes. 3D-printed items are created through an additive process whereby a robot places sequential layers of material, laid until the desired object is completed. 3D printing is the opposite of subtractive manufacturing, where material is cut out or hollowed using equipment such as a milling machine. Conversely, additive manufacturing does not need a mold or material block to create physical objects, and instead stacks layers of finely sliced cross-section of material that fuse together.

The idea of 3D printing dates to 1945 when science fiction writer Murray Leinster first described the technology with surprising accuracy in his short story “Things Pass By.” Leinster envisioned a machine that could take drawings and replicate them with a moving arm, using melted plastic to form 3D objects. 3D printing became reality during the latter half of the 1980s; however, it was rudimentary and only able to produce basic synthetic pieces. Development of 3D printing technology proliferated during the 21st century and today it is transforming into cutting-edge solutions for creating many different types of production components. The applications and use cases of 3D printing vary across industries including aerospace, automotive, healthcare, manufacturing and construction. Recent advances in 3D printing technologies have enabled the building of homes, buildings and bridges.

3D printing, then, has potentially huge applications to hotel development. 3D construction printing utilizes robotic arms to deposit corrugations of materials, typically concrete or other specialized mixes, to build entire structures or specific components. Benefits of 3D construction printing include development cost efficiencies through reduced labor and faster completion timelines and the capacity to realize intricate and custom designs that were historically impractical. Finally, unlike traditional construction, 3D printing reduces waste by utilizing only necessary amounts of materials.

Which takes us to today. The world’s first 3D-printed hotel is proposed at El Cosmico, which today is a unique 21-acre lodging facility that includes tents, trailers, yurts and teepees and situated in the small city of Marfa, Texas. Iconic boutique hotelier Liz Lambert, who founded Bunkhouse Group, plans to relocate and expand El Cosmico on a nearby 60-acre plot that will showcase entirely new architectural approaches made possible with 3D construction printing. Collaborating with design/architectural firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and construction technology company ICON, the proposed complex is slated to include otherworldly dome-shaped lodgings that will appear to organically rise from Marfa’s remote desert landscape. When completed, the improvements will showcase a radical new approach to lodging development.

While a major milestone achievement, utilization of 3D construction printing today is in its infancy. In the near term, challenges facing widespread adoption of this new phenomenon include the need to create standards for this innovative method while ensuring safety and compliance. Additionally, development of specialized materials suitable for 3D printing, optimizing their properties for construction purposes and scaling up production will all take time. As technology progresses, 3D construction printing will substantially influence cost-effectiveness, sustainability and innovative design.

by Dan Lesser, co-founder, president and CEO at LW Hospitality Advisors