If you are like me, you don’t hit the headlines by moving houses. Well, retired Amsterdam shopkeepers Elize Lutz and Harrie Dekkers are different. They captured the attention of many around the world when they recently received the keys – or, more accurately, downloaded the door-unlocking app – to their next house.
Why so much interest? Elize and Harrie will be Europe’s firsts tenants of a fully 3D-printed house. The 94m2 (1,012 ft2) home was inspired by the shape of a boulder and is located in the Meerhoven district of Eindhoven, the Netherlands. It’s the first of five homes that construction firm Saint-Gobain Weber Beamix has planned for the same plot of land by the Beatrix canal.
It may sound like one small step for a city, but it could well prove one giant leap for tomorrow’s Europe. If at some point in the coming decade or so 3D printer nozzles could replace increasing numbers of bricklayers -- let alone if these nozzles expand into other industries -- the continent will enjoy myriad opportunities across different realms. But these will come hand-in-hand with substantial challenges.
Let’s consider three key areas:
1) Jobs and skills
Construction is an extremely significant sector in terms of job creation. In 2019, just before COVID struck, 7% of all workers in employment in the EU-27 were in the construction industry - same level as in the UK, and slightly above Switzerland (6%) and below Norway (8%).
Source: own calculations based on OECD data
Moreover, construction has traditionally provided a solid path to the middle class in Europe and beyond for workers with limited educational attainment – at least if we define ‘middle class’ exclusively in financial terms. For example, in March this year, the average construction worker in the UK earned £2,672 per month, which was almost bang on the national mean of £2,652, according to seasonally adjusted data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
I don’t mean to say that 3D printing (also called additive manufacturing) is a bad thing, much less to suggest that it is something to be avoided. Quite the opposite. As we will see in a minute, it can bring substantial benefits. But developing some foresight about the likely impacts of having fewer construction jobs wouldn’t hurt us, even if such a scenario is a few years away.
Questions that both businesses and policymakers should ask themselves include:
Companies, societies and economies will all benefit if we start exploring possible answers to these questions and acting upon our findings before this likely transformation gathers pace.
2) Housing markets
In a recent study of 17 European economies, the IMF found that a typical rental household spent about one-fourth of its income on rent in 2018. A young family paid its landlord one-third of its income. In the case of the 20% poorest households, the share spent on rent reached 40% -- that is the threshold from which economists consider a household to be overburdened by rent payments.
Share of Overburdened Renters in Lowest Income Quintile, 2018 or Latest
Sources: EU-SILC and IMF staff calculations
The study’s authors speculate that COVID might have worsened inequalities in the housing market, as low-earning people and the young are much more likely have jobs that were affected by the restrictions put in place to tackle the pandemic, as well as by the associated economic downturn.
Now for the good news. As additive manufacturing technology for housebuilding matures, it should make these homes cheaper than similar traditional developments. This is because 3D-printed houses require less labour and cement (this latter point also being a significant environmental advantage). Robots can put layer upon layer 24/7, so the process can also be faster – the Eindhoven house took 120 hours to be printed, meaning it could have been ‘built’ in one go in just five days.
This technology, then, may come to provide a way significantly to increase the housing stock in European cities, thereby making homes more affordable. Cheaper houses would be great news for the sustainability of growth as it would make it easier for people to move where opportunities are available.
Policy at the local, national and EU levels can support this trend. Consider, for instance, how projects under NextGenerationEU, the €750bn recovery fund that also seeks to steer the bloc towards a digital and green future, could help countries accelerate the development and adoption of this technology, especially for social-housing programmes.
3) Business and industrial strategy
Finally, if successful use of 3D-printing techniques to produce new houses points to an increasing maturity of additive manufacturing technology more widely, what would that mean for the strategies of different businesses, as well as for national or European industrial strategies?
For example, should European companies that currently manufacture overseas move production back to their home markets? If so, would local supply chains adapt quickly enough? What consequences would such production onshoring have to third, mostly developing countries that currently host their factories? Would EU development aid be used to alleviate the impact of such moves?
National and EU policymakers may also find themselves soon discussing whether 3D printing can be applied across a plethora of industries to boost the “strategic autonomy” sought by a bloc squeezed between the two global economic and technological juggernauts, the US and China.
For instance, EU policymakers may consider if 3D printing could become a viable way to boost the European production of semiconductors. Rising demand and different sources of disruption to manufacturing have recently caused a global shortage of these key products for the digital age, highlighting the fragility of their supply chain. With the EU accounting for a mere 10% of global revenues, this hits badly an European economy that, in this sector, is “dangerously dependent on other regions”, in the words of Iris Plöger, from the Federation of German Industries (BDI).
Additive manufacturing could also come to play an important role in efforts to meet climate goals. If European countries are to make good on their green promises, the transition to “net zero” will have to reshape their economies at an astonishing speed. In the UK, for example, the government has pledged £12 billion to projects benefitting from its Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. Manufacturing techniques that reduce emissions and waste in general will come in handy for that.
Elize and Harrie, then, are not just a retired Dutch couple about to move to a boulder-shaped house in Eindhoven. They may well be the heralds of profound changes to come in Europe and beyond.