Neri Oxman Showcases the Power of Biomimicry in 3D Printing Design

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During a well-attended afternoon presentation held on Day 1 of Inside 3D Printing New York titled “Printing to the Nth Dimension,” the internationally lauded architect, designer and head of MIT Media Lab’s Mediated Matter Group Prof. Neri Oxman discussed her groundbreaking work in harnessing the power of additive manufacturing and showcasing its potential to help us build and make things as nature does.

Prof. Oxman began her talk by drawing a sharp contrast between humanity’s current design and production processes, which require a multiplicity of single-use parts to build complex machines, and the highly integrated, multi-functional, multi-material approach to creation found in the natural world.

A Volkswagen sedan, for example, is made up of 14,000 individual parts, whereas the human skin is comprised of only one “part” with properties that vary throughout it’s structure and perform multiple functions.

Volkswagon Car Parts

Emphasizing that her Mediated Matter Group’s goal at MIT is to develop “products without parts” and “processes without partitions,” Prof. Oxman went on to describe several of her team’s notable projects.  These include, among others, a 3D printed glove that integrates the multiple functionalities found in a carpal tunnel brace within a single print and using a single material. In describing the principles behind the success of the carpal tunnel “skin” project, Prof. Oxman emphasized that her team looked to nature in developing  its computational approach, stating that “every design we take on in the lab begins with a phenomenon that exists within the natural world.”

Neri Oxman Design

Prof. Oxman has famously leveraged this approach in developing many other successful projects and exhibitions that have been featured throughout the world.  Her 2012 exhibit in Paris at the Centre Pompidou titled “Imaginary Beings – Mythologies of the Not Yet,” for example, showcased the capability and potential of 3D printing technology to create multi-functional objects using multiple materials embedded within the same build or “skin” and exhibiting different properties.  A “Minotaur” helmet, for example, was printed using harder material properties around certain areas of the head requiring greater protection and softer materials in areas closer to the face.

Neri Oxman Inside 3D Printing

Most recently, Professor Oxman presented the Gemini lounge chair at an exhibition in Paris, as part of a two-part, multi-material sleeping pod design.  The chaise was printed using the Stratasys Objet500 Connex3 Color multi-material printer and CNC milling by Le Laboratoire.

The lounger is innovative in that it incorporates varying material properties to create softer surfaces around the areas that will be exposed to the body, and harder materials in areas intended to sustain the structural integrity of the chair away from the body.  When combined with its upper portion, to be displayed this coming October, the Gemini Chair will turn into an acoustic sleeping pod designed for comfort.

Additionally, Professor Oxman shared that the Mediated Matter Group will be unveiling it’s silk pavilion exhibit this spring.

Having set out to explore the relationship between digital fabrication and biological fabrication at an architectural scale, Prof. Oxman’s team happily discovered the first purely biological additive manufacturing process by redirecting the cocoon-making path of 6,500 silk worms using light, heat and geometric spatial conditions.  In the silk worm, Prof. Oxman emphasizes, her team found a helpful model for transcending the three principal challenges we face in the development of additive manufacturing:  software, materials and print scale.  The silk pavilion will be displayed in the atrium of the MIT Media Lab building.


This article was written by Lisa Perez, a regular contributor to On 3D Printing.

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