When 3D printing began trickling into SA in the 2000’s it took some time for the average human being to wrap their head around this sci-fi technology. Fast forward to 2018 and the first 3D printed house was unveiled at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas just weeks ago. We’re talking about a 74 sq meter home built from the ground up by a robot.

Pioneered by ICON and New Story Charity for the low cost housing sector, the house was created using a specialised printer called the Vulcan which ejects a concrete composite in concentric layers, hardening to a strength greater than that of cinder block. The house was printed (wrap your head around that) in less than 24 hours at half the cost of any traditionally built home, constituting a giant leap for the building industry.

WATCH | 3D printing using the Vulcan

Non-profit organization New Story partnered with construction technologies company ICON to create a 3D printer capable of printing an up to 800-square-foot house in less than a day.

We’ve quickly become accustomed to the notion of printing models for architectural use, jewellery and accessories, as well as prosthetics for the medicine industry. Chair designers in particular have been using 3D printing to produce a vast number of chairs, the very first of which was Patrick Jouin’s Solid C2 chair, released in 2004 and made from epoxy resin.

Solid C2 by Patrick Jouin
Solid C2 by Patrick Jouin
Image: Thomas Duval

Fashion designers have embraced this technology too, with garments that challenge traditional notions of textiles. Italian designer Simone Leonelli’s exhibition of 3D printed clothing and accessories made from biodegradable thermoplastic revealed the potential of 3D printing to result in intricate works of art.

But while 3D printing is allowing us to produce more precise, sustainable and cost effective methods of manufacture, it seems to lack that magic ingredient... the human hand.

A quick google search for “3D printed furniture” reveals a number of plastic based, space-age designs with webbed and cellular details, which may be intricate but lack the learned skills and humble nature of hand tooling.

Where 3D printing alone seems to have missed the aesthetics boat, subtractive methods of fabricating like laser cutting or carving with CNC machines are producing more aesthetically sensitive results, thanks to the materials they allow for, as well as their dual maker and machine relationship.

In a collaboration with the late great Zaha Hadid, UK based designer Gareth Neal’s collection of Vesels reveals rigorous and intricate carving work produced both by a CNC machine as well as Neal’s own hand tooling. “Since wood is a natural material with a grain and irregularities, it still requires skill to work with it digitally. You still need the tactile knowledge of the material, the knowledge of a craftsman, to work out the best way to cut the wood and to understand how it will flex and move,” he explains. Ultimately the great leaps we’ve made in the digital fabrication sector have left us wanting more of the human element.

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