COBOD International – A Construction Revolution
3D-printing is a technology that looks set to revolutionise the construction industry.
The achievements made with 3D-printing in construction are already impressive but as COBOD International shows us, there is more to see in the future.
COBOD International is by far the leading provider of 3D production printing technology. Not only is their technology responsible for a series of firsts, like the first 3D printed building in Europe made in Denmark in 2017, the first 3D printed two-and-three story buildings in Europe, made in Belgium in 2019 and Germany in 2020 respectively, and the first 3D printed concrete windmill tower, but they are also selling more construction printers than anyone else across five different continents. The company’s machines have proven beneficial to the construction of everything from concrete structures such as wind turbine towers to commercial apartment blocks.
The reason COBOD has such a lead in the marketplace is simple, they are selling a finished product in a field where many are still in development.
“We make heavy-duty construction equipment that will last a minimum of five years, with a projected lifespan of ten years,” says Henrik Lund-Nielsen, founder of COBOD. “You can leave the equipment to stand in the rain and it won’t be harmed. If you compare that to our competitors most of them are still fighting with their first prototypes.”
But while COBOD is clearly leading the field, the field itself still has something to prove as far as the wider construction industry is concerned.
“The construction industry is a conservative industry because buildings have to last a minimum of 30 years,” Lund-Nielsen points out. “At the same time, permitting is a challenge because this is a new way of building, with new materials. The authorities don’t know how to handle it.”
COBOD has had to take a creative approach to satisfy various permitting authorities. Indeed, Lund-Nielsen tells us that across the five publicly completed projects COBOD’s printers have built, no two have followed the same building and permitting process.
However, there’s no denying that, initial reservations aside, COBOD makes a convincing case.
“We’ve worked with well-known brands such as General Electric, Emaar, L&T Construction and PERI. We collaborate with companies that have a reputation for reliability to overcome the conservatism,” Lund-Nielsen says. “Among our shareholders is PERI, a globally leading supplier of formwork equipment, the alternative method of on-site concrete casting. By holding shares in COBOD they’re saying they can’t beat us, so they join us, giving the technology a lot of credibility with the conventional construction industry. PERI is now our distributor and partner for the German-speaking part of Europe. So that’s one way to overcome that conservatism.”
However, aside from partnering with other well-reputed businesses, the fact is that COBOD’s results speak for themselves.
The first and foremost advantage of COBOD’s 3D-print technology is obvious- it is an extremely labour-saving process.
“In my opinion, this is the most important selling point,” Lund-Nielsen says. “What’s driving most of our customers is the labour saving and cost savings on a productivity front.”
The capabilities of COBOD’s printers mean construction projects require less in the way of skilled labour, at a time when acquiring skilled labour is becoming a huge problem in many countries. On top of that, COBOD’s model brings with it all the advantages wrapped into automation, as Lund-Nielsen says, “You get precision, and you get rid of mistakes as well as the tedious work that is harmful to employees because it’s all happening automatically.”
With COBOD’s printers being such cutting-edge technology, one could be forgiven for worrying it simply replaces one set of hard-to-source skilled labour with another. But the evidence quickly refutes that idea.
The first case Lund-Nielsen points to is that of the first 3D-printed two-storey building in Europe, built using COBOD’s technology by Belgian firm Kamp C.
“They don’t have any of their own employees working in the execution of construction projects, so the actual work was done by students from a nearby university,” Lund-Nielsen recalls. “We educated a few of the students and they educated their friends.”
Even that level of hands-on training turned out to be unnecessary, however, as a case from the US Army revealed.
“The US army engineer corps printed their first building themselves at their headquarters to prove it works. Then they wrapped up the printer, wrote a manual and sent it to some troops out in the field and within a few days, the troops had constructed a building based on a manual and the technology that was sent to them,” Lund-Nielsen explains. “There was no training, the troops just read a manual. It’s no more complex than that. If you have a basically qualified guy in construction or IT, they can figure it out.”
Speed of Execution
Aside from being easy to use, another major selling point of COBOD’s 3D-printing technology is it’s just straight up fast, which means that construction projects can be executed and completed much faster. As the fastest printer of its type in the world, it can output ten tons of material per hour- the equivalent weight of ten cars. That might seem impressive, but Lund-Nielsen is clear that this is actually an area he expects to see a great deal of improvement in.
“When it comes to speed the technology is there, but more advancement will come as we see improvements in terms of the material supply systems, pumps and mixers,” he says. “To a certain extent the printer itself is ahead of the rest of the systems and now they’re going to catch up so we can execute at the printer’s speed.”
To offer some perspective, COBOD’s first proof-of-concept building was printed with the first printer, the BOD! And took two months to print in 2017. After having developed the second-generation printer, the BOD2, COBOD then went on to repeat the exercise, building an exact replica of that building in 2019 in a warehouse to see how far the technology had developed. It took just 28 hours, the second time documenting a 20-times increase in productivity.
“If we did it a third time, we expect we could complete it in eight-to-ten hours,” Lund-Nielsen says. “And achieving five hours in the future isn’t unfeasible. That’s just from the experience we’ve gained and increased capability in the entire process chain.”
While the speed and efficiencies in cost and labour are inarguable, where COBOD’s technology really brings whole new possibilities, is in the design freedom it offers to architects and builders.
“To prove the capabilities of the printer we didn’t have a straight line in our first building,” Lund-Nielsen says. “Because we were 100 metres from the ocean the walls even had waves. You couldn’t do that with conventional technology.”
This kind of freedom drew the attention of EMAAR, the company behind such outstanding Dubai projects as the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world and the 7 star Burj Al Arab hotel that looks like a sail.
“They are really a star customer to have in the Middle East,” Lund-Nielsen agrees. “When they wanted to verify the usefulness of the technology with their first 3D-printed villa they chose our technology. The finished villa is not been revealed yet but they have done things with form and design details that would never have been possible with traditional technology.”
Dubai has decided that by 2030, in less than ten years, 25% of all building work will be 3D-printed. The EMAAR project is a reflection of that goal, which will open up all kinds of opportunities for COBOD.
More Than a Printer
COBOD’s technology has gone from printing single-floor buildings to three-floor, multi-apartment buildings, & Lund-Nielsen firmly believes that COBOD’s printers will continue to build bigger in every direction. Five or six-floor buildings are on the horizon within the next couple of years. But building bigger is only part of what he envisages.
“Installation, painting, why can’t the printer do these tasks?” Lund-Nielsen asks. “At that point, what you have is less a 3D-printer, and more a multi-functional construction robot. That’s something driving our research and development direction, adding more value for our customers.”