From designer gear to lunar outpost: 3D printers hint at tantalising futures and promise to realise our most daring dreams
The mere notion of printing the coolest designs – tweaked to our personal specs – in the comforts of our own living room, has caused those in the know to hail 3D printing as the industrial revolution of the 21st century.
At this year’s Milan Furniture Fair, the Salone del Mobile, Dutch designer Dirk Vander Kooij wowed the crowds with elaborate furnishings fashioned from recycled plastic – he even fabricated an entire wardrobe during an 8-hour live demonstration. The 3D printer used in this endeavour was no fancy off-the-rack product, but something he built during his studies at the Design Academy Eindhoven where he reprogrammed a former industrial robot to serve his new aim and goal. Now, this machine takes the designer’s meticulous creations and “retraces” them in precise lines and contours. Using reclaimed plastic from old refrigerators – chopped up and fed to the printer – the molten material is then pressed through a nozzle like parboiled spaghetti. Step by step – and layer by layer – the resulting mass becomes an object, a piece of furniture just like this table from Kooij’s new Endless series.
Although 3D printers continue to gain popularity among consumers, Vander Kooij doubts that they will automatically transform anyone into a designer: After all, the question of form and function continues to govern the outcome. His own 3D printer is thus no more or less than a means to an end and one of many tools that help him not only to realise his ideas, but also to get them just right, all the way down to the tiniest detail.
Earlier this year, the Replicator launch caused a major stir, MakerBot’s second ever home printing device from the company’s Brooklyn headquarters. The Replicator is the first ever machine to allow amateurs to produce objects the size and volume of an orange. MakerBot co-founder Bre Pettis compares the commotion around the €1,300 household device with the excitement surrounding the first ever personal computer.
At MakerBot, everything centres around the so-called open source principle: In the associated online community Thingiverse anyone can download the designs of other experimenting members free of charge, without any fear of copyright infringement, or share their own blueprints and templates under the same conditions. Pettis foresees great potential for this technology when it comes to realising exalted dreams. “If we can already print 3D toy castles, why not a bona fide house or an entire lunar station?”
Italian inventor and engineer Enrico Dini from Pisa has been pursuing similar plans. Eight years ago, he started to develop a printing technique called D-Shape. The procedure mimics the process of sedimentation and rock formation under the sea, a development that usually takes thousands of years. Following in the footsteps of nature, he managed to print an entire house the size of a gazebo in just a week – using ten tons of sandstone from the Dolomites in the process.
To up the ante, Dini currently plans to build a veritable village on Sardinia based on an architecture not a million miles away from the characteristic Flintstone dwelling: curved rocky houses without straight walls. Using the latest technology, Dini takes us back to the roots of our ancestors with humble, yet welcoming homes.
A work in progress, it will take a few more trials until Dini’s set-up reaches the intended printing speed of 6 centimetres per hour, but this particular visionary has a persistent streak – and even managed to win over renowned British architect Sir Norman Foster to his cause. Together with him, Dini plans to design and print a lunar outpost. When asked about their slightly outlandish choice of location, he replies, “well, it’s a necessary stopover on the way to Mars, isn’t it?”
So, with this in mind, there is still plenty of time until the European Space Agency’s upcoming Mars flight, scheduled for 2030.