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Story of world’s first industrial-scale 3D printer is a story of sacrifice

Enrico Dini is not a cautious man. In 2005, the Italian adapted a piece of machinery from the shoe factory he worked in and made it print a robotic arm out of sand and resin. Buoyed by his success, the inventor realised that a machine with the ability to print stone objects could have a transformative effect on the housing industry, and started drawing up plans for the world’s first industrial-sized 3D printer. Soon after that, he left his lucrative job in Rome, remortgaged his house and stepped into the unknown.

“When I realised that this project should be my life project I sacrificed everything,” says Dini, 54. “I left my well-paid job then, because of debt, I ruined my relationship with my wife [who he later divorced] and that meant spending less time with my son. Then I had to sell my family apartment and I now have nothing left, I am really poor.

“But I am giving a dream to people. Giving my son [who is now 12] something to be proud of because his father did something important.

“We decide how to drive life. Most people have a pruden­tial approach to life; I am not one of them.”

An insight into Dini’s impetuosity came when I was setting up this interview. We briefly met at an event in London and, a few days later, I e-mailed him, suggesting we speak on the phone or have lunch the next time he was in England. His reply came zinging back five minutes later, inviting me to come and stay with him in his apartment by the sea, almost halfway between Rome and Pisa.

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Like so many gifted people who end up changing the world, Dini has had to struggle to realise his dream. The inventor of the 3D printer comes from an illustrious line of thinkers: grandfather Ulisse Dini was a famous mathemati­cian and politician, and Enrico’s father, Egisto Giovanni Dini, built one of the most important bridges in Pisa and helped design various models of Vespa and a prototype for a heli­copter.

When he collects me from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport in his battered Fiat, I realise that Enrico Dini must lead a lonely life, as he seems delighted to have someone to spend the weekend with, even a virtual stranger. On the two-hour drive north along the coast, it is hard to keep up with his rapid-fire speech, let alone the fascinating ideas that spill out as he talks about printing houses on the moon, coral reefs in Australia and rainforests in the Middle East.

He is also extraordinarily candid about how creating the world’s first industrial 3D printer nearly broke him and about Anna, an Italian woman living in London who he met while he was still married, and how she broke his heart when she left him a few years ago.

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Although the pretty seaside town of Porto Santo Stefano is bathed in late summer light when we arrive, I can understand how difficult it must be for a man who was born into the Italian upper classes to stay in a slightly shabby apartment block in rural Italy all year round. Small and gloomy, with furniture and curtains that look like they date back to the 1970s, the flat is improved enormously by its views of the town and, beyond, the Mediterranean.

Dini’s biggest setback occurred in 2008, when the construction world was seemingly entranced by his newly built D-Shape 3D printing machine and its first offering, Radiolaria, a two-metre-tall honeycombed sculpture. He was given £53 million by an Italian company to move to London and develop D-Shape. However, the market crashed two months later and the project was cancelled. Despite being seriously underfunded, Dini pressed ahead with plans to expand the business and build a second 3D printer – this one bigger – and in the process wiped out his inheritance and all the money he had saved over a 20-year career.

With the world a poorer place after the financial crisis, Dini struggled to find funding and to patent D-Shape, which was soon being copied in China and America by companies with far deeper pockets than his.

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Dini’s invention may have crippled him financially , but many experts agree that D-Shape will play a crucial role in construction and may even alter the way we live our lives. It is clearly this legacy that allows him to make peace with everything he has lost.

“My invention has disrupted the world in the same way the invention of reinforced concrete did over a century ago,” he says. “I don’t think you can underestimate what a huge impact 3D printing will have. I grew up in the age of nuclear power, reinforced concrete and gas – all important drivers of change in the 20th century that satisfied the intense demands of urbanisation. Our challenge now is how to find homes for a billion new people without devastating our resources. My invention will help do that.”

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Before we delve more deeply into Dini’s complex and highly imaginative ideas, it is important to understand what 3D printing is and, more specifically, what D-Shape does. Six D-Shape printers have been constructed. Three of these, two in Italy and one in New York, are owned and run by Monolite UK, the company Dini created to sell 3D printers and printing-related wares. The other three have been bought by construction companies in Spain, Switzerland and Britain. These printers are able to construct objects as big as six metres cubed, layered in 5mm sections, by meshing together sand and other materials with a binding agent to create a stone-like substance.

“The technique brings together the best of printing tech­nology and robotics,” says Dini. “To understand how I plan to print houses, you have to picture a block of concrete. Now slice it in layers in your mind. Then reverse the process, start­ing with layers and building them up to make physical objects.”

In each phase of the process, a layer of sand is laid down. Then 300 nozzles pass over it, extruding a liquid adhesive compound that includes seawater along a pre-programmed path. The process is repeated again and again, the surrounding unbonded sand supporting the structure while it solidifies before being removed. It has been reported that the process takes a quarter of the time needed to build a similar structure by traditional means, and is much faster for complex shapes. “This means we can design and print anything using computer-aided design, and build things it would otherwise be impossible to build.

“We are closer than ever to a world where you can create physical objects from your imagination.”

Dini uses only the word “material” when describing the physical renderings because he has no intention of using concrete or traditional building substances. D-Shape is designed to work with the soil or sand indigenous to the landscape where houses will be printed. So, in Alaska or Siberia, houses would be made out of ice and permafrost, in Saudi Arabia they would be made predominantly out of sand, and in Mozambique, in southern Africa, they would be made out of clay. On the moon, houses could be made of lunar dust.

“We need to work with the Earth rather than against it, using natural materials in an organic way that is both environ­mentally friendly, cheap and non-polluting,” he says.

The utopian future Dini is imagining seems more closely related to the pre-industrial age, when humans lived near the resources they consumed, than the modern world.

“Yes, that is my dream,” he says. “There is a strong connec­tion between going back to the land and using it in the most updated way, which means using it digitally. People have suggested that 3D printing is the third industrial revolution, but I disagree with that premise entirely. This is not the third industrial revolution; it is the first industrial devolution. Because of the internet, we are a global village, so you can work or live anywhere. Let us devolve from megacities and the relentlessly urban lives so many of us lead.

“Asia is so overpopulated, I think that this invention has come at a time when that continent, in particular, is ready for it,” he continues. “The new generation, particularly in somewhere like China or Japan, has entered the workforce in a world that is already big. And to build they think they have to use the techniques of their fathers: reinforced concrete, steel. But these techniques seem old-fashioned to a generation reared on a new digital concept of language, design and communication. Every generation wants to reinvent the world and this is a machine for young people hungry for something new.”

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Dini is emphatic, however, in that particularly Italian way of his, that D-Shape should not be used as a ready solution to a housing crisis.

“I invented it as an instrument to achieve beauty, because beauty is the most important thing in life,” he says. “Americans and Chinese would say I invented it to build cheap houses quickly. But no, it is not about making 1,000 houses at 25 dollars each. It is about creating a more environmentally friendly system that uses less energy and less consumption than a typical building site.”

Dini has been approached by a number of Chinese corpor­ations hoping to use D-Shape to build cheap housing but, he says, he has been reluctant to work with them, which has led to construction giants such as Shanghai-based WinSun bypassing him and inventing 3D printers of their own.

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“They are all fascinated by the idea of making several million flats in five minutes,” he says. “They assume they can just print a house but they forget about wiring, electricity and everything else. That, at this stage, is not possible. Until it is, I think in somewhere like Hong Kong, 3D printing currently has two uses. Firstly, digital manu­facturing, which doesn’t print an entire house but uses a printer to create beauty on the outside of an existing structure. And secondly, for the protection of the coast and marine life in polluted waters.”

While Dini may not yet be building houses for humans on the scale he had hoped for, he is building a lot for fish.

“I was talking to an Australian marine biologist about the fish tanks I wanted to build for a personal project when he suggested I think bigger,” he says. “‘Forget the fish tanks and make some artificial coral to help rebuild our depleting fish stocks.’ Now, I am an inventor, which means I give even the craziest ideas some consideration. So I put the phone down, thought about it all night, and realised this would be my new mission.”

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Dini spent the next few years perfecting a technique for moulding lifelike coral reefs. He and his team dredge sand and sludge from the seabed along the coast, dry it in the sun and fold it through a D-Shape to print the natural curves of a reef. This done, it is returned to the same seabed, where it replaces destroyed or damaged coral.

What the printer can do that a sculptor cannot is speedily create hundreds of identical reefs that are alternately rough and smooth and full of hides, dens, cavities and undercuts, all of which are necessary for fish repopulation. The printer is also able to create magnesium-based reefs, which are neces­sary for the biofilm growth essential to marine ecosystems.

“This project would work very well in Hong Kong, I think. We’ve already made a lot of coral and we have proven the technique can work,” he says. “Our coral is more like a stone object full of cavities. Like a resort for fish. And what is incredible is that the fish are immediately attracted to the more aesthetically pleasing designs.

“Everyone likes beauty, you see.”

Helping protect the environment while making space for the inevitable population increase in Asia and Africa is fundamental to Dini’s project, which is why he also plans to take the radical step of printing rainforests in the desert and so make habitats for humans in a place where our presence would have a negligible impact on wildlife.

“Why should we ignore 20 million people who are living in poverty or chop down rainforests to house them when we have a lot of land that is totally useless,” he asks. “Why not build 20 cities each with 500,000 inhabitants in the desert rather than one megacity like Beijing or Mumbai? We have several million square kilometres of desert that could become useful when we have a population of 13 billion.”

Dini has been in talks with the governments of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, he says, but how exactly will he produce abundant plant life in a place where currently there is none?

“Well, I will create trees and leaves, like elsewhere in the natural world,” he says, as if the answer should have been obvious. And Dini’s concept does borrow heavily from Mother Nature. He plans on first creating a water table by building an impermeable basin, then pumping water in and laying arid soil on top so plant roots can access it at all times. He will then print 30-metre-tall artificial trees using local soil, the height and width of baobabs, which will be erected a few feet apart from each other. Vast inter­locking carbon-fibre leaves will create a canopy that produces energy and reduces water loss through evaporation and thus allows life to flourish on the desert floor for the first time. And while such structures could be made without a 3D printer, Dini is convinced that D-Shape’s ability to use local materials to create an entire series of trees is essential to the project.

“Ultimately, it is not a difficult concept,” says Dini. “All it takes is a little imagination.”

Equally fascinating is his plan to print houses on the moon. After winning a competition to work with architects Foster + Partners on a lunar construction site, he tested his idea using volcanic ash, which has the same mineral make-up as lunar dust, and he hopes to start printing objects on the moon in conjunction with the European Space Agency within a decade.

“It is a wonderful project that makes me feel alive again,” he says, with a wide smile.

Talking to Dini and following his fast, stream-of-consciousness conversation, delivered in a thick Italian accent, is a stimulating but exhausting process, and it is with a sense of some relief that I leave Porto Santo Stefano after two days in his company. Dini could not have been more welcoming, but his sadness is sometimes hard to witness.

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“It won’t be me who changes the world, it will be a bigger player,” he says, as we approach Fiumicino Airport. “I am not Mr Ford, I am not Mr Gates and I am not Mr Allen, I am just Enrico Dini, a man who has lost everything. Someone with billions will make billions out of my invention but I know I have given a message to the world of construction that is as important as the message Steve Jobs gave to the world of computation.

“Yes, I f***ed my life, but when one night in 2004 I couldn’t sleep and I had this vision of what 3D printing could do, it was a dream of amazing shapes. A dream of beauty. Beauty, you see, is the essence of life – it is not an option, it is everything. And I am a brilliant inventor of beauty, and even though I will die in poverty, my inventions are winning ones.”