Material ecology: additive technology and biological forms

skin to aid people with carpal tunnel syndrome
© Neri Oxman

Neri Oxman, director of the Mediated Matter group behind the beautiful Silk Pavilion, presented this weekend at the Biomimicry 3.8 7th Annual Education Summit and first Global Summit. Her group's work explores the frontiers of additive manufacturing.

TreeHugger has written extensively about the sustainable potential of 3D printing, which avoids the waste associated with cutting away material to create the desired form. Oxman refers to the waste associated with traditional manufacturing as one of the "syndromes of the industrial revolution."

Another syndrome of the industrial revolution is the way the design and manufacturing processes are divorced from each other. "In nature, this is not the case," says Oxman. Mediated Matter's work strives to re-integrate design and production into a "circular economy" using 3D printing.

biomimicry 3.8 talkMargaret Badore/CC BY 2.0

Oxman's team has been exploring designs that are not only based on the human body, but are the direct result of imaging an individual's form. They've developed a process that lets them "go directly from an MRI to the printer." One example Oxman presented is a supportive glove designed to alleviate her own carpal tunnel syndrome (see top image). She described how the user can create a personalized "pain map," that indicates where the glove needs to be more flexible or rigid. The 3D printing process translates this map into an object where the material is thicker and more protective or thinner to be flexible and soft.

The team has similarly made prototypes of body armor, supportive corsets and fantastical helmets. These protective garments are partly inspired by skin. For example, the skin on our faces is thin and serves as a filter, whereas the skin on our backs is much thicker and acts as a barrier.

Of course, there are still major limitations to be overcome. Oxman identified three major issues: the lack of sustainable printing materials, the size limitations of the machines themselves and the necessity of printing in layers.

For the attendees of the Biominicry 3.8 conference, the first issue seemed to be the most pressing. Other researchers made presentations on how they're working to create nontoxic materials that use the chemical building blocks found in nature. These discussions were highly technical, but it's clear that one of the most pressing questions is, "How do we move from toxic to biological materials?"