Author – May Winfield, Senior Solicitor, Carillion

In 2004 Enrico Dini, an Italian from Pontededera, a small town in Tuscany, became obsessed with an idea, which is now set to change the world forever, but which destroyed his own life in the process. Dini was working a lucrative job as a robotics consultant for the footwear industry, when he became fascinated by the relatively new idea of printing objects in 3D,  and started wondering if the machines he was working with in the footwear industry could somehow be adapted to print entire buildings.

Together with his brother he started working on the first prototype machine. His wife told him he was wasting his time, and as his obsession deepened she finally moved to Rome, taking their young son with her.

But Dini could not let go of the idea, and after two-and-a-half years of work he finally unveiled the prototype – The D-Shape printer – capable of producing large blocks of stone and concrete in almost any shape. The first project was the Radiolaria – a 2m tall honeycombed sculpture. An instant sensation, the construction industry flocked to his door and he was immediately offered £53million to move to London to develop his idea

THE TECHNOLOGY

To 3D-print an object, typically CAD data is sent to the printing machine’s brain, which slices that data into layers like salami. Then, applying that data, a material is deposited layer upon layer in an additive process, building up until the shape is created. So objects can be formed in almost any connected shape. It starts either in a liquid or powder form, and uses a laser or adhesive to bond the layers together.

Example of 3D printing process

The applications of the technology are endless.  So far people have successfully printed food; artificial limbs; even prototypes of human organs.

THE BUSINESS BENEFITS

On a 3D-printing construction site you print what you need, when you need it, incorporating any changes in criteria or materials arising over time.  There are significant sustainability benefits, with some high profile groups already focussed on building 3D-printed zero-mile homes.  Going one step further in sustainability, UCLA has developed a technology to  3D print concrete from CO2 emissions.

IS IT LEGAL?

Several countries, including the UAE as well as Denmark and Singapore, are making significant investment into this technology, but there are caveats to this rapid progress.  As we have seen with BIM, innovation can bring a legal minefield, not least due to the lack of standardised processes, terminology, documentation and expectations.  This standardisation will take time.

The technology must also be tested and standardised for risk management, both internally and on a cross-industry basis – ideally through binding contractual processes and regulations. And a new or amended set of standards may be needed to account for everything from what materials are used to how they are deposited.  Considering how important it is to have well-made buildings that can support not only weight, but other types of stresses, construction standards obviously cannot be ignored or glossed over. The UAE is already drafting standards and legislation to regulate 3D printing practices.

THE MAN WITH THE PLAN

In a world where even the Oscar statuettes were 3D printed and the Design Museum cites 3D printing as evidence of a new Industrial Revolution, this is a technology we cannot afford to ignore.

And what of Mr. Dini? The man who started it all. Unfortunately his is not a fairytale. Two months later the market crashed and the D-Shape project was cancelled. With the world in financial crisis, Dini struggled to find funding to patent D-Shape, which was soon being copied in China and America by companies with far deeper pockets than his. But again Dini pressed on, investing his entire inheritance and all the money he had saved over a 20 year career to develop a second, larger printer.

Now, Six D-Shape printers have been constructed. Three of these, two in Italy and one in New York, are owned and run by the company Dini created. 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.

Dini is nearly broke, the money generated by his invention barely scratching the surface of the millions he invested to create the first prototypes. But like all real visionaries, he remains philosophical:

” 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 … 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.”

Blog posted here – by May Winfield, Senior Solicitor, Carillion (Twitter: @BuildLaw_ArtTea)