A/D/O by MINI | The Future of 3D Printing

The Future of 3D Printing

A few years ago, 3D printing was hailed as the technology that would transform manufacturing and revolutionize various industries. However, the buzz seems to have fizzled since then. So whatever happened to the technology, and was the hype warranted? 

The MX3D Printed Bridge was created by robots extruding steel. Photo by Olivier De Gruijtertim

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has been around since the 1980s. Unlike subtractive manufacturing – which involves removing, cutting or drilling material to shape a larger piece – additive manufacturing processes build up solid objects from digital design files by adding successive layers of material until it is complete. 

Although 3D printers are still not close to becoming mainstream, there have been significant developments in the past couple of years that are helping to propel the industry forward. It is now possible to print a fully functional electric motorbike, a metal bridge for an Amsterdam canal and a rabbit-sized heart with blood vessels and cells. Not only that, the array of printable materials available has expanded well beyond plastics, which were most commonly associated with 3D printing in its early stages.

The New Raw's Zero Waste Lab reuses plastic for new 3D-printed products. Photo by Stefanos Tsakiris

Some firms have even gone on to develop techniques that accelerate the recycling of plastics. For instance, Rotterdam-based research and design studio The New Raw investigates how 3D printing can be combined with circular design methods to recycle plastic waste from households and the ocean. “Since we started working with 3D printing in 2015, many things have changed from a technological standpoint and in terms of material development, both of which go hand in hand,” said Foteini Setaki, who founded The New Raw with fellow architect Panos Sakkas. “The technology is becoming more accessible because the capacities of large-scale 3D printing are growing while the costs to print are lowering.”

For Setaki and Sakkas, 3D printing is seen as a means to an end – a way to give discarded materials a new life. As part of the studio’s Print Your City! initiative, which explores how 3D printing can be used to transform waste into raw material for street furniture, the studio launched a Zero Waste Lab in Thessaloniki this past January in collaboration with Coca Cola Greece. Locals were invited to bring their plastic waste to the lab and to see firsthand how the robotic arm and on-site recycling facilities turned their waste into customized street furniture. 

By engaging with citizens at the Zero Waste Lab, The New Raw hoped to create more awareness about the circular economy and to empower the community to decide where and how the street furniture would be used in their neighborhoods. After a three-week voting period where locals could select the location and designs of the furniture, 10 3D-printed pieces of street furniture made from 800 kilograms of recycled plastic waste were placed in Hanth Square.

Print Your City! initiative turns waste plastic into street furniture. Photo by Stefanos Tsakiris

For Setaki and Sakkas, 3D printing is seen as a means to an end – a way to give discarded materials a new life. As part of the studio’s Print Your City! initiative, which explores how 3D printing can be used to transform waste into raw material for street furniture, the studio launched a Zero Waste Lab in Thessaloniki this past January in collaboration with Coca Cola Greece. Locals were invited to bring their plastic waste to the lab and to see firsthand how the robotic arm and on-site recycling facilities turned their waste into customized street furniture. 

By engaging with citizens at the Zero Waste Lab, The New Raw hoped to create more awareness about the circular economy and to empower the community to decide where and how the street furniture would be used in their neighborhoods. After a three-week voting period where locals could select the location and designs of the furniture, 10 3D-printed pieces of street furniture made from 800 kilograms of recycled plastic waste were placed in Hanth Square.

When it comes to waste, 3D printing is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the technology uses only the material it needs to create an object, meaning it generally produces less waste compared to traditional manufacturing processes. On the other hand, since rapid prototyping is still one of the more popular 3D printing applications, the very nature of iterating means that it undoubtedly generates a sizeable amount of waste.

Additionally, while 3D printing enables consumers to produce their own objects on-site and with high levels of customization, which reduces transportation needs and distances, there is the concern this could eventually lead to printing more products that are less valued. That is precisely why The New Raw decided to print street furniture for its Print Your City! initiative. “It was important for us to take advantage of plastic’s material properties and to use it to create larger objects that wouldn’t just be used once and then thrown away,” said Sakkas.

AI SpaceFactory uses biopolymer basalt composites to print dwellings for both Earth and Mars

Another company pushing the boundaries of 3D printing is AI SpaceFactory, which dubs itself as “a multi-planetary architectural and technology design agency”. The New York-based startup won NASA’s 3D Printed Habitat Challenge this year with its massive 15-foot tall egg-shaped structure designed for living on Mars. Called MARSHA, the prototype was printed in 30 hours with an autonomous robotic arm and built with minimal human intervention. 

The AI SpaceFactory team used biopolymer basalt composites, a biodegradable and recyclable material that could be found naturally on Mars. “In remote places like Mars, you can’t just call a contractor to come out and build something,” said Jeffrey Montes, Chief Space Architect and Head of Space Technology at AI SpaceFactory. “You have to think about how you can build from what already exists at your destination and 3D printing was a good framework for considering this problem.” There is no doubt that sending a construction machine to Mars would be challenging, however, Montes explained that it is still much more realistic than sending an entire house to the red planet.

Ai SpaceFactory's TERA prototype is set to welcome visitors to Upstate New York from March 2020

Even as it continues to develop space technologies, AI SpaceFactory is simultaneously finding sustainable applications for it on Earth. The plan now is to recycle the material used in creating MARSHA to build a “futuristic eco-habitat” on Earth that challenges the building industry’s current practices, particularly the use of concrete. Named TERA, the home is slated to be built 1.5 hours away from New York and will be open to visitors for nightly stays starting in March 2020, according to its Indiegogo campaign that has already surpassed its funding goal.

Despite the latest material innovations, some design firms are finding it difficult to source materials. “In our studio, 3D printing is mostly used during the design process to build quick models. We haven’t used it on a one-to-one on-site project yet,” said Wai Wing Yun, senior associate at SPARK Architects, “Our biggest challenge has been finding materials that fit our criteria.”

Spark's Big Arse Toilet project was developed for India to convert human waste into energy

On World Toilet Day in 2018, SPARK unveiled its Big Arse Toilet research concept which aims to tackle hygiene and sanitation issues in remote areas with little access to electricity. Developed to be built in India, the 3D-printed toilet modules were designed to convert human waste into biogas and then transform the biogas into energy using a micro combined heat and power unit. 

“We needed a material that was light but strong, water-resistant and compatible for the outdoors,” said Yun. In the end, the team settled on bamboo fibers mixed with gum resin for the toilet modules, which would be easily transportable and assembled. “Once you have the material though, it’s often hard to find a machine that can print with it,” he added. And this is one of the reasons why the self-funded research project remains a concept. 

The Big Arse Toilet would be printed from bamboo fibers and gum resin, but remains a concept for now

More and more companies and design studios are taking an interest in 3D printing and expanding the applications of the technology as well as the vocabulary of materials that can be fed into the printers to build a more sustainable manufacturing method. However, many of these projects are concepts rather than products that are ready to enter the market. 

It’s clear that there’s a ton of potential for 3D printing to transform industries like architecture, medicine and aerospace, but as the authors of a special issue of Yale University’s Journal of Industrial Ecology pointed out in 2017, there’s an “urgent need to better understand the environmental effects and impacts of the technology, including those arising from raw materials and energy consumption, distribution, wastes, and health and safety considerations.”

As much as developments in materials and processes can contribute to 3D printing technology becoming more eco-friendly, Montes believes there also needs to be better legislation when it comes to making the energy consumption data of various practices more accessible to the public. “Engineering alone will only get us halfway there,” he said. “People will only engineer new things if they are incentivized to do it, so we really need good policy... At the end of the day, if people have the data, they can make evidence-based decisions about what is the most sustainable way to build.”

Text by Charmaine Li.