The World’s First Printed Building

Although, technically, the d-shape process requires no human intervention, the machine sometimes benefits from a good whack with a hammer

In a small shed on an industrial park near Pisa is a machine that can print buildings. The machine itself looks like a prototype for the automotive industry. Four columns independently support a frame with a single armature on it. Driven by CAD software installed on a dust-covered computer terminal, the armature moves just millimetres above a pile of sand, expressing a magnesium-based solution from hundreds of nozzles on its lower side. It makes four passes. The layer dries and Enrico Dini recalibrates the armature frame. The system deposits the sand and then inorganic binding ink. The exercise is repeated. The millennia-long process of laying down sedimentary rock is accelerated into a day. A building emerges. This machine could be used to construct anything. Dini wants to build a cathedral with it. Or houses on the moon.

Dini’s machine marks a vital step change from the shoebox-size 3D printing of today, to tomorrow’s ability to print complete structures on site. Although others have been working hard on the prototype, Dini’s machine is ahead of the pack, with the Architectural Association beating several others to get to the first marketable version. The conceptual leap from modelling to manufacture may seem small, but making it has taken seven years of Dini’s personal endeavour in the face of bankruptcy and, when his ex-wife said she doubted his ability to complete the project, it cost him his marriage.

Not that Dini shows much respect for his invention. His brother Ricardo is a talented mechanical engineer who also works on the project and proposed some of its defining features – the single armature for example. Today though he is beating recalcitrant parts of it with a hammer. Enrico refers to a pin system for calibrating the height of the frame as ‘this fucking device’. He is exasperated by its limitations. ‘My machine is stupid,’ he fumes. Perhaps there is certain dumbness to the binary logic of its on/off secretions compared to the complexity of the robots he once made for the shoe industry.

Dini’s background is in offline programming systems for six-axis robots. ‘Industrial robots are programmed by self-teaching. You bring the arm of the robot to a point, it memorises the point and then you bring it to another point and then you tell the robot to reapply this movement,’ he explains. This machine is different, less precise but more impressive.

Layers of sand are bound together to create a marble-like material, in effect turning it back into solid stone. The process includes internal curves, ducting and interior partitions. Here, hollow columns are being constructed from the base up

A 5mm-wide stream spreads out over the dust, becoming a 10mm layer when solid. Because the two components mix outside the nozzle, the machine does not clog up and can maintain an accuracy of around 25 dots per inch. The resulting material is solid stone. Dini may have simply brought together existing technologies and supercharged them with robotics but the implications are massive: digital architecture made real. Stone prefabrications. Printing housing estates.

‘Enrico can build your digital dreams,’ says the architect Andrea Morgante with a smile. Morgante, formerly of Future Systems and now in practice on his own, first met a rather desperate Dini in London in 2008 when the Italian inventor was touting his technology, known as d-shape, around London architectural practices. Hadid’s office was intrigued enough to go and have a look. Foster and Partners was sniffing around it too. Morgante was as taken by the warmth of his fellow Italian as by the possibilities of the technology. Indeed, Dini, a perfect host, is garrulous and open to a fault. One dreads to think of how he could be taken advantage of by the private equity firms and architects he’s constantly courting in London.

Morgante however is his perfect foil, an Italian who understands how the London architecture establishment thinks. ‘[Enrico] wanted something challenging that showed what the technology could do. I developed this model which I knew that in other construction techniques or methods would be either quite difficult or very expensive,’ says Morgante. Together they are working on a proof of principle pavilion for a roundabout in the nearby town of Pontedera; a biomorphic eggshell named and designed after radiolarians, marine protozoa that produce intricate mineral skeletons.

In the soft light of a Tuscan afternoon, the nine cubic metre maquette of the structure glows. Next to it are sections of the final structure. Due to the confines of the roundabout, Morgante and Dini have decided to print the building in parts before assembling it on site. ‘If you were pouring concrete into a mould or milling marble it would be three times the price,’ says Morgante of the Radiolaria. Morgante’s work at Future Systems, which created the Media Centre at Lords Cricket Ground in London and Selfridges in Birmingham means that he understands the architectural implications of Dini’s machine. ‘I also knew that with organic shapes there was always an extra price to pay for curvy things. You want curves you have to pay,’ he says. Not any more. One of the many implications of Dini’s machine is that it could bring an avant-garde tradition of architecture into the mainstream almost immediately.

This is not the only implication. The otherwise affable Enrico Dini is finding it difficult to cope with all the implications. ‘I’ve been working in solitude and been unknown for several years. There was no pressure. I was just by myself,’ says Dini.

Dini claims the d-shape process is four times faster than conventional building, costs a third to a half as much as using Portland cement, creates little waste and is better for the environment. But its chief selling point may simply be that it makes creating Gaudiesque, curvy structures simple

In 2002 he had presented a robot that could make bespoke shoes. He unveiled it though just as Italian shoe manufacture collapsed and production moved abroad. He realised he’d have to reapply his training in robotics to another industry. For a while, he looked at creating hydrogen for future transport vehicles from wave power. Then in 2004, he began experimenting with 3D printing using epoxy resin, inventing and patenting a full-scale 3D printing method that used epoxy to bind sand. Enrico could now 3D-print buildings.

Epoxy resin sticks to anything – including the machine that is applying it. This led to high maintenance costs for the machines as well as inefficiencies when they were used. Enrico went back to the drawing board to invent anew. In 2007 he got a new patent for a system using an inorganic binding material and any old sand to 3D print buildings. ‘When I realized that nobody was going to give us money to develop it, I decided to fund the research. I remortgaged my house and borrowed money from my father,’ he says. In 2008 he printed the maquette for Radiolaria and since then, he’s been bombarded with ideas but no concrete funds for development.

Those that talk about how recessions are times for productive thinking and activity tend to have steady jobs. The realisation of Enrico Dini’s goals was seriously derailed at the end of 2008 when a large Italian cement manufacturer that had come forward as a major investor pulled out due to the credit crunch. Dini was forced to visit London, a city he now knows well, to tout his machine around.

‘I came to London because of architecture, private equity and love,’ he says. The last at least has been good to him. His partner, Anna, is Italian but has lived in London for 13 years. But private equity has been of little use and it is only now that architecture is coming round. The Architectural Association has approached him in order to buy a kind of working prototype – through which knowledge can be shared.

Dini claims the d-shape process is four times faster than conventional building, costs a third to a half as much as using Portland cement, creates little waste and is better for the environment. But its chief selling point may simply be that it makes creating Gaudiesque, curvy structures simple

Others are circling. Dini is pleased but doesn’t see it as an ultimate goal. A Belgian prototyping company has approached him to produce stone furniture. In the corner of the studio stands Dini’s version of what looks suspiciously like a Joris Laarman chaise longue. ‘They said the original is in MOMA but I don’t know who it is by,’ he shrugs, underwhelmed. Later he admits his real interest lies in producing buildings. ‘What I really want to do is to use the machine to complete the Sagrada Familia. And to build on the moon.’

***

Enrico Dini became an engineer because of his father Egisto, who taught Automotive Engineering at Pisa University. Egisto’s career-defining job though was as head of the Calculation Department at the celebrated Piaggio factory from the end of the war. He was a key member of the team that became one of the genuine legends of engineering that Corradino D’Ascanio set up to work on the helicopter and the Vespa scooter. Egisto was known by workers at Piaggio as The Great Unknown because of his thoughtfulness. Enrico seems to be more like his uncle, the garrulous and brilliantly named Dino Dini who was director of the Institute of Machinery at Pisa from 1965 to 1983 before spending some time working with NASA in Pasadena and writing a major work on missile manufacture. He spent his later years back at the University in Pisa as head of the Department of Energy, working on water-fuelled cars among other things. Enrico’s machine is the product of some serious engineering DNA.

It’s also the product of Pisa, a city with which the Dini name is intertwined. ‘I have been helped by a lot of friends in Pisa. There’s a very long tradition of mathematics and physics here. From this substrata came the development of national computing, which in Italy happened first in Pisa in the early 1970s. Since then there has grown a whole generation of informatics and IT people here. I found good people to drive the software for the machine. I have been helped by some very smart people that I enabled to make a lot of money in the past,’ he says, smiling. One also senses that his remarkable machine was also inspired by the city in a more poetic but to Dini, equally significant way.

Enrico’s father tells a story about the Second World War. The family home was close to the Ponte Mezzo in the heart of old Pisa. One day, while eating lunch, the family heard the sound of approaching US bombers. ‘Don’t worry,’ said grandfather Dini. ‘Pisa is an open town. The Americans won’t bomb us.’ The rumble of the planes grew louder. ‘Er, are you sure, Dad?’ said his father. ‘I’m sure,’ said his father. Two minutes later the American bombers emptied their payload on the bridges along the Arno and the Dini family was running through the streets. After the war, his father, newly graduated, worked for the Ministry of Public Works, engineering the replacement bridges before he was head hunted by D’Asconio for Piaggio.

Architect Andrea Morgante is working with Dini on the Radiolaria pavilion

Egisto Dini also helped build the roof on the Camposanto, another casualty of the American raids, a beautiful cloistered cemetery, tucked behind the Leaning Tower and the City’s Cathedral. Built in the 13th Century, the Camposanto’s flagstones are the graves of the town’s dignitaries. Inscribed on one stone is the name of Enrico Pistolesi, an expert in propeller dynamics who died in 1968 and was a mentor to the young Egisto Dini.

Enrico was named after Pistolesi and his name therefore is literally part of the built fabric of Pisa, a city known throughout the world for the malleability of its architecture. The Leaning Tower is a daily reminder that what we think is most solid is plastic. Enrico’s uncle has contributed to the scientific discussion on how the building is preserved.

Another Dini, Ulisse Dini, who was Enrico’s great uncle, is also buried in the Camposanto. A great mathematician his name is found all over the city. A statue of Enrico’s great uncle stands on Ulisse Dini street. Every city has a statue that is regularly adorned by the public. In Glasgow it’s the statue of Wellington that has a traffic cone on its head. In Pisa, it’s Ulisse Dini and a can of beer. Caught in the middle of declaiming the theorem to which he gave his name, his left hand is conveniently sculpted in such a way as to hold an empty can, a fact which makes Enrico almost as proud as the theorem. As a second year student, he was given an oral examination for his mathematics course and was of course asked to explain Dini’s Theorem, which, according to Enrico, helps ‘systematise infinitesimal calculations’.

It would be easy to overstate the importance of Enrico Dini’s personal history in the production of his printing machine. Much of his expertise is highly specialised, marrying CAD-driven informatics and top-end robotics to a chemical process he doesn’t fully understand. As we pass the chemistry department in the engineering department, Dini half-jokes that whenever he is trying to perfect his structural link by adding fibres or even new chemicals, he calls them up to see if its OK to do so. A couple of times they’ve said: ‘No! Don’t add that!’ Yet, Dini, a self-confessed ‘bad student’ has what his forefathers lacked, the entrepreneurial gene, and is able to co-opt other learning quickly. Before the Radiolaria pavilion begins construction in the spring, it is undergoing the results of strenuous boiling and freezing tests. All looks positive.

Isaac Newton said he stood on the shoulders of giants. Dini’s relationship with the European Space Agency gives some idea of the scale of his ambition. Through his academic contacts Dini heard about the European Space Agency Aurora programme, which was established by the agency to devise, and then implement, a plan for robotic and human exploration of the solar system, with the Moon and Mars as the most likely targets, and to establish a more permanent presence on the Moon.

Dini beams confidence despite receiving a tepid reception from British venture capitalists and the architectural establishment in London

He realised quickly that tenders must be undertaken with partners with experience of working in space and approached Alta Space, an expert in propulsion technologies. It is one of the many spin-out companies that have emerged from Pisa’s fertile research ecology. He also brought in experts from the elite college La Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa and, famously, Norman Foster.

The project is not as fanciful as it sounds. The idea is to create a robot that could take the regolithic powder found on the moon and make buildings from it, using advanced sensor technology being developed by La Scuola Normale Superiore and propulsion devices created by Alta Space. In addition it would presumably create large structures in the manner of Foster and Partners. Given the way the practice’s buildings often go against the urban grain, the moon seems ideal.

One can’t help admire Foster though. Dini approached him in the hope of securing funding or work, yet the Machiavellian lord ends up getting work out of Dini – a nice research contract in space technology, an area he’s long been fascinated with. Foster and Partners appears to be cagey about Dini. There has clearly been much discussion with the practice but, the research contract aside, nothing solid has come out of it yet. The firm invited him to test his machine on making some cladding for Masdar City, Abu Dhabi. Dini, excited by the idea of using waste from the desalination process, tried to make paving slabs and cladding with salt. ‘It was a disaster,’ says Dini.

His architectural friends are keeping quiet about the Aurora contract too, although perhaps that is wise. The contract was nearly jeopardised at the end of last year, when Dini excitedly told me about the project and the story was picked up by the nationals who ran it under the headline ‘Norman Foster to build on the Moon.’ The European Space Agency was not pleased. Dini’s consortium, including Foster and Partners, still got the contract though.

Large-scale rapid prototyping using Dini’s inorganic ‘ink’ works far better than Dini’s first attempts at 3D

One wonders how such a warm and open individual as Enrico Dini will fare in this environment. His ambition stretches to the biggest challenges in architecture – including finishing Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, which has been under construction since 1882.

Dini has been working closely with James Gardiner and Professor Mark Burry of the Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, which is researching the incomplete Gaudí building. Gardiner has spent three months working alongside Dini in Pisa and believes that Dini’s machine is the closest to the market. ‘We hope to use d_shape to complete the cathedral,’ says Dini. He also jokes about printing a replica Leaning Tower.

In his essay Dreaming in the Middle Ages, the Italian writer Umberto Eco, discerned, ‘a fantastic neomedievalism’ in contemporary Italian society. With the medieval street pattern of Pisa as its backdrop, the Dini family as a latter day guild of physicists and robotics experts and d_shape as a modern day cathedral building machine, it is easy to be seduced by this idea. Yet Pisa is also a place of enlightenment. It was in Pisa Cathedral that Galileo Galilei observed the swinging lanterns. From this he posited that pendulums have a constant period, and developed his Law of Inertia. It is a place where heretics give birth to new thinking and new technology. It is a place where Enrico Dini fits in perfectly.

 

About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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