The 3D printer at the University of Johannesburg can complete a house in one day. The finished house is stronger, can handle fire better, and is better insulated than conventional houses.

Access to decent housing which is safe and close to essential services such as schools and health is a basic human right.

In response to the quest for human rights, the Republic of South Africa adopted a Constitution in 1996. Section 26 of this Constitution states that “everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing” and “the state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of this right.”

South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world — we have held this title for a few consecutive years now. The stark division between the haves and the have-nots is apparent with a simple drive through our cities — informal settlements adjacent to high rises are not uncommon. It is symptomatic of South Africa’s broader socioeconomic context.

In 2021, research from the Academy of Science of South Africa (Assaf) and the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) indicated that the backlog in urban housing is more than 2.4 million houses, with many families living in informal settlements.

According to Statistics South Africa, approximately 2,600 informal settlements in South Africa accommodate about 1.4 million households. History has demonstrated that South Africa can construct over 160,000 homes per year in the government-subsidised sector and 80,000 homes per year in the private sector.

However, since 2009, the delivery of government-subsidised houses has dropped at an alarming rate, indicating that the government and the private sector require significant intervention. There has been a clarion call for sustainable solutions to address this crisis, particularly with growing urbanisation trends.

The University of Johannesburg (UJ) has two objectives: to lead in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and to attain the United Nations’ (UN) sustainable development goals (SDGs).

In response to the South African housing crisis, in 2022 UJ invested in 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, to address SA’s social housing backlog. This was done alongside the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), which has extensively researched the impact of this project.

Stakeholders such as the Mampeule Foundation, a non-profit organisation aimed at improving the quality of life and access to opportunities for marginalised communities across South Africa, have provided R5-million grants spanning over five years to postgraduate students studying engineering and the built environment. The cement supplier AfriSam offers all the cement products needed for the 3D printing project. The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Human Settlements has committed to providing serviced sites for constructing houses in Ethekwini Municipality.

3D printing is a technique that uses a device to create physical objects from digital models. It is estimated that the 3D printing market will be worth $40-billion by 2024. The range of 3D-printable materials has grown significantly over the years, making the technology appealing to various industries.

While the initial investment is steep, 3D printing ultimately reduces the overall cost of construction. Additionally, 3D printing reduces waste. Research suggests that the construction industry produces over 30% of the world’s waste and is responsible for more than 40% of carbon dioxide emissions, which can be substantially cut through 3D printing.

While in the previous industrial revolution, manufacturing tended to be concentrated in fewer centres, 3D printing is bringing back distributed manufacturing. Countries such as China and India benefitted greatly from this concentration of manufacturing when Western companies “off-shored” to these countries due to cheap labour, excellent skills and high population rates. 3D printing brings manufacturing to small towns and offers flexibility and more personalised products.

The 3D printer at the UJ can complete a house in one day. The finished house is stronger, can handle fire better, and is better insulated than conventional houses.

While this is a promising and sustainable solution to the housing problem, as the Constitutional Court asserted in Government of the Republic of South Africa and Others v Grootboom and Others, “housing entails more than bricks and mortar. It requires available land, appropriate services such as the provision of water and the removal of sewage and the financing of all of these, including the building of the house itself. For a person to have access to adequate housing all of these conditions need to be met: there must be land, there must be services, there must be a dwelling. Access to land for the purpose of housing is therefore included in the right of access to adequate housing.”

Additionally, fears about job losses persist. From a social security point of view, the perception is that only a few skilled and semi-skilled workers are required to operate the technology and that 3D printing will only widen unemployment statistics.

As it stands, the construction sector contributes 2.7% of the total GDP. Intriguingly, the building, construction, architecture, and engineering sectors saw the most significant increase in hiring activity in the last quarter of 2022. The third-largest job gains in the third quarter were made in the construction sector, with more than 46,000 employment opportunities realised.

Despite fears that this trend will be reversed as some jobs will certainly be lost, there are still resources and skills required in this process. For instance, the construction of the walling system constitutes an estimated 30% of a completed house. Labour is still necessary to excavate and prepare platforms, roofing, carpentry, and electrical installation.

Then, of course, the construction value chain needs to be considered. The value chain for construction includes identifying materials, material characterisation and preparation, logistics and delivery to the site, construction, maintenance, and demolition.

This value chain will still be an essential driver of jobs. There is also a call to upskill and reskill the workforce, particularly for jobs impacted by 3D printing, as more technological advancements unfold, allowing the workforce to reframe traditional conceptions of jobs in the sector.

For instance, upskilling architects and engineers is necessary to promote and adopt 3D printing technologies. As new roles, opportunities and industries emerge, there is pressure to bridge the gap between skills, automation and jobs to ensure we have a pre-emptive approach to these developments.

Given the developments in 3D printing, what is to be done?

Firstly, we must introduce 3D printing as a compulsory subject in all our technical schools and Technical Vocational Education and Training (Tvet) colleges. We have to make 3D printing literacy courses mandatory at universities. The successful implementation of the compulsory AI literacy course at the UJ provides an excellent example of how we can implement this strategy.

We should also develop a national plan for reindustrialisation catalysed by 3D printing. We should also invest in 3D printing facilities and, through tax breaks, incentivise companies to invest in this technology to increase our productivity.

We must look at the broader implications as we grapple with these shifts and their potential impact. We are faced with vast inequality and a housing crisis. We cannot dismiss tangible solutions based on fears around potential job losses when opportunity also exists.

As Jordan Flaherty, the author of “Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six”, asserts, “housing is a human right. There can be no fairness or justice in a society in which some live in homelessness, or in the shadow of that risk, while others cannot even imagine it.”

*The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the outgoing Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He is the incoming United Nations Under-Secretary-General and a Rector of the UN University. Professor Letlhokwa Mpedi is the incoming Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.

They published this opinion article that first appeared in the Daily Maverick on 08 February 2023.

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