Today, the emerging construction 3D printing sector is being pioneered by a relatively small number of companies, each of which is presenting its own technology and vision for disrupting the global construction industry. Amongst them is CyBe, a Netherlands-based company that has taken an encompassing and holistic approach to construction AM.
The company has piqued our interest many times over the years: first when it 3D printed an expansive drone laboratory in Dubai, and then again when it supported the live-printing of a house at Milan Design Week in 2018. Most recently, the Dutch firm announced that it had been selected as the technology provider by MEET for a 3D printed housing project in the UAE at the SRTI parc in Sharjah.
To learn more about the company, its technology, operations and philosophy, we recently spoke to CyBe Construction Founder and CEO Berry Hendriks. He shared with us the foundation of his company, as well as how it continues to build up its construction AM offering.
A construction legacy
Hendriks has been a part of the Dutch construction sector for longer than most. His family started and still runs a housing construction firm in the Netherlands that was founded in 1922.
“My father has taken me to construction sites since I was little, and I even started to work for my family’s company during the school holidays when I was about 11, in a factory making window-frames, roofs and precast concrete,” he tells us. “Then during my studies, I was able to do internships, which gave me a lot of real experience by a young age. Eventually, I did my master’s at the University of Eindhoven, and then went on to work at my father’s company as a project manager and project developer.”
Hendriks’ knowledge of and experience in the construction industry gave him a unique perspective and the realization that he wanted to play a part in changing the industry and making it more efficient. In 2010, for instance, he led a team of architects and engineers in the design of 12 houses but radically changed how the process was organized. “Normally it takes about five months to really design and engineer houses,” he explains. “But since I changed the way we were organized, we achieved it within just two weeks.”
The moment that really put Hendriks on the path to 3D printing, however, was when he watched Behrokh Khoshnevis’ Tedx Talk in 2012 about his Contour Crafting technology. “I know that it was a theoretical presentation, but it didn’t seem that difficult,” he remembers. “I analyzed it and thought: you need material, hardware and software, as well as a 3D model, but you could make a real product.”
From there, Hendriks quit his father’s company in 2013 and founded his own, CyBe Construction. The company’s mission from the beginning was to 3D print concrete wall elements for houses with the aim of making construction faster, cheaper and more sustainable. “Back in 2013/2014, we developed a prototype based on a robotics system. Then in 2015, we entered into an accelerator program and really started to focus on the business case,” he says. “We also understood that we wouldn’t be able to change the industry if we were just printing ourselves, we needed to partner with other construction companies globally so that we could help them to solve their problems.”
Things moved rather quickly for CyBe in its early years. The accelerator enabled the company to establish its business and helped it secure it first collaborations. In 2015, for example, CyBe 3D printed wall elements for Heijmans for infrastructural projects. Then, in 2016, the company was granted a tender for the construction of a laboratory in Dubai. “Based on that project, we acquired another project in Milan, and then another in Saudi Arabia, and it has been growing ever since,” Hendriks says.
In addition to working on construction 3D printing projects, CyBe also made progress with commercializing and starting to sell its machines. In 2018, it delivered its first printer to a precast factory in Japan. Last year, it sold many more and delivered two. Today, in total, the company has five machines in operation around the world—in Morocco, Spain, UAE (Sharjah), Japan and the Netherlands. It is also in the process of producing five more 3Dprinters which will be ready to ship at the end of summer. “Our sales pipeline goes through to 2021,” Hendriks explains. “From a business perspective, we are covered until the beginning of 2022 with production.”
The business model
Hendriks emphasizes that CyBe is not only focused on selling printers, it is also invested in supporting the design and engineering process for its customers. In fact, the company is subdivided into several departments, which give some indication of how it operates.
“We have a design and engineering department for housing and other projects, which is made up of architects, structural engineers and urban planners. They provide the 3D files to the 3D printing team,” he explains. “Then we also have in the COO process-flow the 3D Concrete printing team which is focused on using our own technology. On the product side, we have the CPO department, which consists of a team of software engineers, robotic engineers, mechanical engineers and gaming software engineers. This is the team that develops the printing technology, including hardware and our two software programs, ARTYSAN and CHYSEL. And then we’ve got the manufacturing department, which is manufacturing and selling the machines after R&D is completed.”
CyBe’s dynamic is clearly demonstrated when looking at a current project it is working on in India. There, it is working closely with a partner to build a G+7 apartment complex (eight stories). The India-based team purchased the 3D printer, but they also hired CyBe’s team in the Netherlands to design and engineer the apartment complex. From its end, the CyBe team is planning the entire infrastructure, including developing the building mixture so that it integrates local materials from India.
“I think that’s pretty unique,” he states. “What we see with a lot of companies is that they focus on only selling the printer or only design engineering or printing themselves. I believe that since we are doing everything and those four units are also working together, we can improve the technology. If we can do it ourselves, then we are in a better position to provide the technology and support to our customers. We are always looking to make a business case: we must build faster and cheaper compared to traditional construction.”
Hendriks elaborates on this idea further, explaining that promoting the adoption of concrete AM is not just about demonstrating the technology. He believes it is more important to solve the business side. “We can sell somebody a printer, but it’s important that eventually, the customer is going to earn money with it. If they spend 200,000 euros on a machine, we can indicate that within two or three years, there is an ROI.”
The ABBs of construction 3D printing
Turning towards the company’s technological offering, Hendriks sheds light on how CyBe’s concrete 3D printing technology works. Like with most AM processes, the technology is founded on three key things: hardware, materials and software. CyBe’s system is interesting in that it is based on existing hardware and software: ABB robots and Rhinocerous software.
“Our system is based on an ABB robot partially due to the fact that ABB has good global coverage,” he says. “If we are looking at selling and providing maintenance to our customers around the world, we want to have partners in every country that can provide the necessary degree of service and support.”
The CyBe robot itself is available in three configurations: the CyBe R, a fixed 3D printer; the CyBe RC, which is fixed to a mobile crawler; and the CyBe RT, which is a robot on a track. These robotic systems are controlled by two Rhino-supported software tools, and CHYSEL, CyBe’s special slicing software. “We use Rhino because most architects nowadays are taught to use parametric design in Rhino. We like to make use of platforms that already exist, like Rhino and ABB. We’re not reinventing the wheel here, we want to find the right combination of existing systems to make our optimal 3D printer.”
In terms of the 3D printable concrete material, details about CyBe’s special MORTAR is still very much under wraps. Hendriks explains that he spent a long time finding the right partner to develop a printable, fast-setting concrete with. “Back in 2013, I came across a family-run company that had this really fast-setting concrete, so the CyBe MORTAR is a co-development with them. The material is 30% our special compound, and then 70% is sand, and this can be sourced locally. We can also play with our compound to achieve different properties and cost. Our regular material is about 360 euros per ton, but we also have a less fast-setting mortar that costs about 200 euros per ton.”
The combination of CyBe’ protected concrete mixture and the ABB robotic base have enabled CyBe to achieve rapid deposition rates. “Since we have a really fast setting concrete, we can print at a speed of about 600 mm per second. If you printed at that speed with a gantry system, the dynamic forces on such a printer would be too big and the entire installation would crack. ABB’s robotic system is designed to make such quick movements.”
The robotic system is designed to build wall elements onsite, which can then be assembled using a crane. Hendriks illustrates this idea, saying: “For the G+7 apartment complex, we can print four elements on the first day. Our concrete is load bearing and can be hoisted into place using a crane within one hour of printing. As a result, as elements are being printed, earlier ones can be hoisted, and so on. We are capable of generating a really fast construction sequence: such an apartment complex can be built within just two months.”
The COVID-19 question
It is difficult nowadays to discuss future plans without inquiring about the impact of COVID-19. Fortunately for CyBe, it has not faced a major setback because of the virus. Today, the company is observing physical distancing at its facility, with some staff members working from home. The company has also adapted in other ways, transitioning its 10-day 3D printing training session into an online course. Typically, customers would travel to the Netherlands for a hands-on multi-day training session. In light of travel restrictions, the company has launched the CyBe Lybrary, which offers the service online.
“We work with companies all over the world, and in some cases COVID-19 has impacted our project schedules,” Hendriks says. “I think we are lucky that we have partners all over, because we can focus our capacity on the regions that are recovering and opening back up. We’re pretty flexible.”
The CyBe Lybrary also has another function: it will serve to connect CyBe’s various customers and the projects they are working on. Taking this open approach to knowledge sharing will be mutually beneficial to everyone involved, Hendriks says. “By combining everyone’s strengths, you can create much greater momentum than when you’re doing things on your own.”
CyBe sees its offering as becoming more important in a post-COVID-19 world, largely because of its high degree of automation. “Our robotics are less labour intensive than conventional construction. If you only need two people to operate the system and they can be at a distance from each other, then you can keep up production. I think due to the pandemic and the growing housing shortage in many countries, the global construction industry will start to focus more on construction automation.”
Will construction 3D printing reach the mainstream?
With a fairly new technology like construction 3D printing, it is always interesting to think of how big of an impact it will have on its larger industry, and whether it will become mainstream. In this case, it does not seem likely that every construction project in the future will be 3D printed, however, that doesn’t mean that most construction jobs won’t involve 3D printing in some way.
“The construction sector is approximately a $12 trillion industry and there are so many different products being built, like factories, houses, offices, roads, tunnels, bridges, windmills, etc. Each of those products has its own optimal processes. In addition to that, each country has different ways of building and regulations. Due to the fragmented nature of the industry, I do think that the number of applications for construction 3D printing will grow, but not everyone will use it.
“If you look at the global issues we are facing, there is a housing shortage because of population growth. There will also be a labor shortage in construction because the work is hard and in a harsh environment. 3D printing can help to automate the construction process. There is also the issue of how we design houses: they should be energy neutral, and 3D printing can help there.”
While Hendriks recognizes that there are many potential applications for construction 3D printing, he is most interested in housing, the segment of construction that his family’s company has worked in for nearly a century. “I think if we want to change the way we design, engineer and build houses, we should not only focus on the printing element,” he concludes. “We have a holistic view and as a result, we’ve created a platform that is accessible to all our customers and facilitates the entire printing process.