Arts

The next 3D printed object you see could be a building

In 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama declared that 3D printing holds “the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.” But for the average person, when 3D printed objects come to mind, they're probably in the shape of toys, individual components of furniture, or just whimsical patterns found on the internet. 3DXL, the exhibition of 3D print culture on now at the Design Exchange in Toronto, considers the potential of 3D printing through projects that take on a much larger scale – namely, an architectural one. It’s possible that, one day, the nearest 3D printed object will be the one you’re living in.

3D XL exhibition shows the potential of 3D printed igloos, houses and giant sculptures

WireMass, 2015. Gilles Retsin, Manuel Jimenez Garcia, Vincente Soler. ABS plastic. 150 cm x 50 cm x 50 cm. IRB 2600 on loan from ABB Robotics. (Eugen Sakhnenko)

In 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama declared that 3D printing holds "the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything." But for the average person, when 3D printed objects come to mind, they're probably in the shape of toys, individual components of furniture, or just whimsical patterns found on the internet. 3DXL, the exhibition of 3D print culture presented by the Design Exchange museum in Toronto, considers the potential of 3D printing on a much larger scale — an architectural one. It's possible that, one day, the nearest 3D printed object will be the one you're living in.

The applications of 3D printing have already zoomed past the tabletop machines that began appearing in the consumer market over the past few years. Just this month, the United States' Food and Drug Administration approved the first 3D printed medication. Researchers are even developing methods of printing skin tissue, a revelation that could effectively end the waiting line for organ transplants. But these uses of the technology won't be part of our daily life for years, even decades.

Saltygloo, 2013. Emerging Objects. 3D printed tiles made of crystallized salt, binder and polymers. 183 cm x 183 cm x 183 cm. On loan from Emerging Objects. (Eugen Sakhnenko)

Architecture, on the other hand, may be moving more quickly to harness the power of the 3D printer. 3DXL is full of designers' proposals in a range of materials that run from the pragmatic to the fanciful. One of the most exciting elements of 3D printing (especially for architecture) is that manufacturers can use materials that already exist on-site. Take salt. For the exhibition, Bay Area 3D designers Emerging Objects have assembled an igloo-like structure (aptly named Saltygloo) by harvesting a fraction of the 500,000 tonnes of salt produced each year in the San Francisco Bay. Admittedly the shelter might look a little flimsy, but these are early days.

In 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama declared that 3D printing holds "the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything."

Not all of the projects in 3DXL provide shelter — many are ornamental. The centrepiece of the show is Arabesque Wall, a 3D-printed sandstone monolith by architects Michael Hansmeyer and Benjamin Dillenburger. The extremely heavy sculptural piece looks a bit like what H.R. Giger might have created if he spent a lot of time in the Middle East. It's not clear where this piece could live in a home, but it would fit in quite naturally as part of a contemporary (or ancient) palace. Mangrove Structure by Denegri Bessai Studio is a more humble construction, but similarly lifted from the imagination. It features 3D-printed polymer arranged into a domed lattice, mimicking the forms of the mangrove tree.

Mangrove Structure, 2015. Denegri Bessai Studio. 429 cm x 457 cm x 274 cm. Nodes - 3D printed ABS Plastic, 3D printed PLA Plastic, 3D printed Stainless Steel. Rods - GFRP (Glass Fiber Reinforced Polymer). Floor - Laser-cut 1/4" White Acrylic. Developed in collaboration with Design Exchange (Eugen Sakhnenko)
Right now, these projects are prohibitively expensive, largely because they require massive printers that aren't widely available (not least because the printers themselves are heavy and cumbersome). But lest you think that 3DXL is simply musing on what 3D printing can do for the very, very rich, some of the show's ideas have broad potential applications to address social problems like the lack of affordable housing.
Arabesque Wall, 2015. Benjamin Dillenburger and Michael Hansmeyer. 3D printed sandstone. 109 cm x 140 cm x 305 cm. Developed in collaboration with Design Exchange. (Victoria Fard)
 Take the project in Amsterdam by DUS Architects to print a traditional canal house, a project they hope will "revolutionize the building industry." And Tara Akitt, exhibition coordinator at the Design Exchange, points out that earlier this year, Chinese company WinSun developed a printer that can create ten concrete homes in 24 hours. This is an innovation that could prove lifesaving in a housing crisis – each house costs only about $5,000 (U.S.).

3DXL devotes much of its attention to the visually stunning, which is only natural. Using 3D printing in an architectural setting is an impressive new way of thinking about building, materials, shapes, and surfaces. But some of these projects reflect their designers' social conscience, indicating that they're thinking not just about shiny things, but about accessibility, social justice and human health.

Model of 3D Print Canal House, 2015. DUS Architects. Macromelt Bioplastic. 6 cm x 6 cm x 15 cm (scale 1:100). On loan from DUS Architects. (Eugen Sakhnenko)

3D printing holds a ton of possibility, which is what curator Sara Nickleson hopes visitors to 3DXL will see: "There's so much [to this technology] — you can print with human cells. I want people to see how much is here, the possibility of having a really big impact in their future."

3DXL: A Large-Scale 3D Printing Exhibition, presented by the Design Exchange and co-presented by Great Gulf and the Printing House, appears at 363 King St. W. in Toronto until August 30. $11 plus tax ($5.50 members, $8.25 seniors/students, free to children under 12). http://universe.com/3dxl

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