Throughout history, many Italian geniuses did not reap the benefits of their inventions. Just think of Galileo, excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church for having understood the motion of planets. Or more recently Meucci who invented the telephone only to have Graham Bell obtain the patent and build an empire with it. Many great visionaries had to leave Italy — and continue to have to leave Italy — to find someone willing to finance their ventures, starting with Columbus, who turned to the queen of Spain in order to set sail on the voyage that would lead to the Americas. The story of Enrico Dini, the man who invented the idea of 3D printing concrete houses by binder jetting, is in many ways a modern version of these: a modern odyssey for the future of construction, one that shares some similarities with these great stories.
For one, Enrico Dini also has an American counterpart, USC professor Berohk Koshnevis, only this time they are friends and they share many accomplishments and mutual respect, as well as the fact that both of their ideas were “borrowed” by other entrepreneurs all over the world and gave rise to that which today we can consider a strong trend for construction 3D printing. A trend that, according to the report published by SmarTech Analysis two years ago, could grow into a 40 billion dollar global industry.
How much of this business will go to those who invented the concept? Probably not that much. I recently caught up with Enrico at his construction facility in Tuscany, and I asked him to go through all the important milestones that led him to where he is today: the founder of D-Shape and Dini Engineering and also the man who invented construction 3D printing by binder jetting.
Enrico Dini’s great invention is not just the idea of using 3D printing with building materials. His technology is not just based on 2D plotting — or multiaxial 2D plotting — like most commercially available digital construction technologies today. From the very start, Dini implemented a very large format binder jetting type of process, which, in his mind, could truly deliver the promise of virtually unlimited geometric freedom in constructions. Dini is a celebrity in 3D printing today but also a very down to earth person, very friendly and very willing — perhaps too willing — to open his heart and mind.
“I do worry that every time I share my accomplishment some just try to take advantage of it,” he admits as we begin talking about his journey. “I invested so much of my own time and money into this project and, while we have certainly reached some significant milestones and implemented our technology in several interesting projects around the world, I can’t say that it has been easy nor that those with whom we’ve shared this journey have always been fair.”
How did construction 3D printing begin?
“Let’s take a step back to 2004. Nokia phones and no iPhones. The construction world was as far from robotic technologies as could be. As an engineer who came from the world of robotics and shoe industry automation in Italy, I quickly realized that, under the unified euro regime, I could not compete with stronger German and French companies. I was programming Kuka robots and I decided I had to diversify. We worked on several inventions, one on hydrogen production for mobility. At the time, we were also using a Zcorp (now 3D Systems) system for shoe modeling. I took a Zcorp system in Piaggio, to offer it as a rapid prototyping device, and, while the presentation was a disaster, that’s where we first had the idea for scaling up this technology to 3D print a full-size house.”
Dini experimented with sand and water (incidentally creating the very first 3D printed sand castle) and, a few years later, met up with constructor Roberto Nannini. With him, and Moreno Chiarugi, he deposited the very first construction 3D printing patent (Method and Device for Building Automatically Conglomerate Structures) initially patented in 2005. Now the challenge was to find proper financing. The patent was based on sand and epoxy resins, rather than cement. This approach was chosen to avoid any risk of infringement on other patents concerning cement-based automation processes, such as one held by Joseph Pegna, who, in 1997, was actually the very first to publish anything on automated cement construction processes, envisioning an intermediate process to glue sand layers together with a Portland cement paste. Unlike the conventional approach of casting concrete into a formwork, 3DCP would combine digital technology and new insights from materials technology to allow freeform construction without the use of expensive formwork.
“At the time I was totally unaware that there was a professor in the US, a certain Behrock Koshnevis, who was also working on this concept,” Enrico tells me. He and his business partners were looking for funds and were able to meet with Italian industrial moguls such as the president of Smeg, who arranged a meeting with Carlo Pesenti, President of Italcementi, one of the largest construction groups in the world. Unfortunately, that also led nowhere. Dini was welcomed by an 80-year old engineer who did not understand the idea’s potential. The project then was placed on hold and Enrico separated from his two partners who, in the meantime, had begun working on their own construction 3D printing concept using a gantry system on a CNC machine.
Going global and back
Enrico then moved to the UK, where he founded the Monolite UK Ltd., the first firm entirely dedicated to building houses using additive manufacturing technologies. While in the UK, Enrico learned about Koshnevis, who was in touch with Rupert Soar, who, in turn, was one of the first to 3D print — or 3D plot — a large size sculpture in cement. Galvanized by the presence of other entrepreneurs, and confident in the superior capabilities of his binder jetting based approach, Dini made a big decision: in order to get the money to 3D print houses, he sold his.
He used this to build the very first factory, in Italy, and his first large-format 3D printer. Here he 3D printed the now famous radiolaria sculpture, designed by Andrea Morgante. In order to avoid any possible patent clash with Pegna, Koshnevis and voxeljet, Dini used magnesium-oxide for powder and magnesium chloride for binder. “When I learned that Winsun in China totally disregarded any patent from Koshnevis or anyone else, I realized I may have been a bit overly cautious,” Dini admits.
When Dini showed this sculpture to a financial consultant, he took him to meet with another large cement construction group that agreed to finance the project with 50 million euro, of which 17 million euro was for Dini’s company. Dini took out a loan waiting for the money to come through. However, the money never did. The bank and investors pulled out from the project citing the economic crisis of 2008 as motivation. Dini returned to Italy and founded a new company, Dinitech, and sold his machine to the new company for $400,000 and a 40% stake in the company. However, the company ran through one million euro in just over a year. Even though there was interest from other industry groups, the company’s new manager refused and set his mind on producing and selling cement products using Dini’s technology. Unfortunately, most of these projects also fell through. All but one: the very first 3D printed house, built for Milan’s Triennale Museum. The technology demonstrator project, titled “Una casa tutta d’un pezzo” (A house in one piece), should be considered the first complete 3D printed house.
“This house did not get any visibility,” Enrico remembers. “However, what got a lot of visibility was a section of free form wall, which arrived all the way to China and led Winsun’s founder — a kid who did an internship with Koshnevis in California — to produce, 4 years later, the 3D printed office for the ruler of Dubai. Since then, dozens of companies have emerged but only a few of them proved profitable for Dini and his company. “All the companies, that sprouted around the world since then, are — in one way or another — connected to me, Dini says. In the Netherlands, where I gave one of my first conferences, they followed up with a large format project based on thermoplastics. Now COBOD, founded by my friend Erik Lund Nielsen, is also doing some important work, as is CyBe in UK and XtreeE in France. They were all in some way inspired by our work. We also collaborated with IaaC in Catalunya, with Sofoklis Giannkopoulos, and even formalized our relationship to a certain degree. On that wave, we worked with Acciona in Madrid and built a 3D printer for them to create the very first 3D printed cement bridge. It was a tribute to my father, who was a bridge builder.”
Dini’s work, however, is not just about building bridges in the sky: many 3D printed construction projects for defense, in the arts and in other construction segments (coral barriers, public benches) were successful both for their innovative approach and from the economic side of things. Dini has also sold a few machines around the world so the future does look bright.
Binder jetting — a technology that seemed to be born old — is now looking more and more like a key 3D printing technology for the future, as the almost infinite geometric possibilities it offers become more relevant than its limitations and complexity. Still today, Dini’s technology is the only construction technology — together with voxeljet’s to a certain extent — based on a binder jetting approach. Who will reap the benefits of this potential is still not clear. Dini’s work may not get the economic recognition it deserves for many years, but one thing is for sure: more houses will be 3D printed.