Singapore will test whether public housing buildings can be 3D printed.

“The idea is to print them maybe a unit at a time. So if you have a 10 storey building, you will probably do one storey at a time. These will be transported to the construction site where they will be stacked up like lego,” Professor Chua Chee Kai, Executive Director of the Singapore Centre for 3D Printing told GovInsider.

The centre was setup with S$150 million (US$107.7 million) of funding from the government and industry to research how 3D printing can be used in Singapore

It is working with a company to test the idea, and will formally propose the project to government agencies in Singapore this year. It plans to test-bed a prototype in three years, he added.

The centre will create “printable concrete” and new machines that are large enough to print building parts, he said. “In the area of housing there are quite big challenges. There is no assistance of 3D printers and no availability of printable concrete. We have to develop all this from scratch”, he added.

With people’s lives at stake, the construction industry has not always been the first to try new things. “The construction industry is typically very conservative: building tends to be among the last industries to try something new,” Professor Chua said.

But with Singapore’s heavy reliance on foreign workers for construction and its ageing population, the government wants to use less labour and increase productivity.

The centre is now mapping out which building parts can be 3D printed. While a “fair amount” would be 3D printed, it may not make sense to print every single part of the house. “Certain parts which are not sensible or not cost effective to 3D print, we will leave it to the conventional methods,” he said. The “structural components” are most likely to be 3D printed, he said.

The centre is also testing whether weapons parts can be 3D printed. This will allow the military to print spare parts whenever they are needed without having to rely on overseas manufacturers. “Over time many equipment could go obsolete as manufacturers will stop supplying spare parts of older versions. So one of the things that defence is looking at very carefully now is the management of spare parts,” he said.

Another area with potential is healthcare, where new bones, organs and tissues can be created. 3D printed body parts are less likely to be rejected by the patient’s immune system since they are made with their own cells.

The centre has already run a successful trial of 3D printed bones in animals. In 10 to 15 years, more complex organs like hearts and livers will be 3D printed, Professor Chua believes.