Saint-Gobain acquires the Eindhoven 3D concrete printing plant – 3DPrint.com
Saint-Gobain Weber Beamix announced that it would buy the stake held by construction company BAM in the Eindhoven concrete 3D printing plant, which was previously a joint initiative. This means that Saint-Gobain is now the sole owner of the factory which printed several bridges and houses in the Eindhoven region.
An entirely indoor site, the plant uses robotic arms to produce parts for houses, shuttering and components for bridges and other large-scale construction projects. So far, the factory has produced a cycle bridge, a pedestrian bridge and the first in a series of houses.
The houses were created by a consortium made up of EIndhoven University of Technology, construction company Van Wijnen, concrete giant Saint-Gobain Weber Beamix, real estate investor Vesteda, the city of Eindhoven, and engineering firm Witteveen + Bos. Initially, the factory itself was an initiative of a large construction company BAM.
BAM is a Dutch construction company with a turnover of over $ 8 billion per year. Injured by COVID, the firm is cutting costs and reducing its international exposure. It appears that the company left the concrete plant for similar cost-cutting reasons. I’m sure it will be foolish and foolish for the company and I can only describe this decision as a lack of forethought. Saint Gobain, meanwhile, is a $ 41 billion, 356-year-old concrete company and they’ll laugh it off for decades.
Saint Gobain affirms that this is a strategic step that will increase its development and manufacturing activity in 3D concrete printing. The firm also claims that this is a sustainable solution that will help industrialize the digitization of construction. While thanking BAM for initiating the industrialization of 3D concrete printing and for making it acceptable in the industry, Saint Gobain underlines the independence that this will give them. They also believe it will accelerate the adoption of concrete 3D printing.
From BAM’s perspective, this is one of the dumbest moves I’ve ever seen in business. In order to explain the importance of this, you should note that I am an additive construction skeptic. Most of the 3D printed press releases about the buildings we’ve seen have been as riddled with lies as Peckinpah the films were riddled with bullets. Most of the claims of “we printed a house in 24 hours” are, in simple terms, wrong. Plus, as Michael points out here, claims that 3D printed homes are solving the housing crisis are either optimistic or exaggerated. Without fundamental changes in the way homes are designed, the true value of 3D printed homes will not emerge.
And even then, there is only part of the total house that you can 3D print. Most additive construction projects attempt to 3D print outdoors. It’s dangerous, silly and a sign that they are an army of fools. Changes in temperature and humidity, rain, humidity, insects and debris all interfere with construction and can weaken structures, bonds and walls. 3D printing in a tent may be better, but 3D printing in a factory and transporting segments gives you a lot more control and means you can 3D print safer structures.
And that is exactly what the Saint Gobain-BAM merger did. While I think the immediate value of 3D printing for houses is limited, the value of printing formwork, bridge parts, tunnel elements, etc. is considerable. By automating a process that typically takes a lot of lumber and workers, you can create components that lower construction project costs and increase innovation.
You can then combine this with building modular kitchen and bathroom units and ship both these and the concrete pieces to homes. This means that more of the custom construction work can be automated and lower costs. In this way, automated 3D printing for construction today can deliver value for homes, tunnel projects, stadiums, bridges, etc. Again, I don’t think it makes sense to print the whole house on location, but it does make sense to print expensive components so that they are cheaper and just as functional.
BAM was one of the few companies that did the heavy lifting to bring 3D printing to construction and now they’ve thrown in the towel. In the scheme of things, this project cannot have cost them a lot of money. With more than 1000 bridges, tunnels and locks in the The Netherlands needs to be replaced this decade, they had a unique opportunity. Lots of Dutch infrastructure was made in the 50s and 60s and must now be replaced. These bridges and other structures are also very similar in their requirements, spans and costs. This would give BAM a unique opportunity to skip formwork and do it more profitably through 3D printing. By bringing more 3D printed components on site, traffic disruptions could also be further reduced. They could then have leveraged this experience to primarily automate the construction of large standardized bridge components and deploy a more economical manufacturing-based construction process around the world.
From now on, Saint Gobain has this opportunity on its own and, logically, it will progress in the production of formwork and parts, eliminating the work previously carried out by BAM and its competitors. For a short-term cash flow crisis, BAM has ceded a long-term share of its market. At the same time, Saint Gobain now has a tool to get started with innovative cities and provincial authorities to set up 3D printed buildings. From now on, Saint Gobain can move towards formwork and components, to move away from its activity of cement raw materials, and towards parts of greater value. You might as well coat yourself in buttermilk, flour, breadcrumbs, hot oil and politely ask the fox to enter the henhouse.
Saint Gobain can further tout the environmental benefits of 3D printing and reduced material use as part of a corporate green initiative. Cement and concrete are among the largest CO2-producing industries in the world. However, Saint Gobain can get around this by showcasing its new digital construction prowess as a way to help innovate in solutions to climate change. They never need to make any money from it for it to make sense to them. All in all, a brilliant long term move from Saint Gobain and sheer madness on the part of BAM.