Last month I attended Biomimicry 3.8’s first ever Global Conference at UMass Boston. It was incredibly energizing to meet and exchange ideas with biomimicry practitioners from Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Belgium, South Africa, and more. I hope to stay in touch with many! I sat in the conference ballroom for each plenary session, among hundreds of people reimagining our world through a biomimetic lens, and I felt with my whole being the power of our collective vision. We are willing a tremendous shift in design, and there is no stopping the type of willpower I encountered in Boston.
I could go on and on about all the fascinating lectures, workshops, and panel discussions I attended over the course of the three-day conference, but I’d rather focus on a particular topic that was a hotbed for discussion on day two – the future of 3D printing. I’ll assume general familiarity with 3D printing, which is the process of manufacturing a 3D solid object from a digital model by laying down successive layers of material. 3D printing is a promising alternative to traditional manufacturing processes which produce large quantities of waste by “chiseling” component parts from large blocks of material. In contrast, 3D printing emulates nature’s additive, material-efficient manufacturing processes. As Janine Benyus explains, “a leaf isn’t cut out of a roll of green stuff,” it is assembled cell by cell.
Neri Oxman from MIT Media Lab began day two of the global biomimicry conference by giving a fascinating lecture about material ecology and the state of the art in 3D printing. Recent advances in 3D printing include:
- 3D printing materials with functional gradients, such as variable density concrete (nature models this technique of varying structure across a single material to achieve multifunctionality)
- 3D printing customized medical devices using a patient’s CT-scan data, such as a one-of-a-kind arthritis glove designed according to an individual’s “pain map”
- 3D printing light maps, such as a map showing the radiation field around a toaster oven
- 3D free form printing without support scaffolding using a newly developed method of multi-strand, quick-dry printing from an extruder head
As Oxman’s lecture evidenced, the rate at which 3D printing technology is advancing is astonishing. Its mass rollout is highly anticipated. Desktop 3D printers are predicted to be trending within the next decade.
Janine Benyus took the stage after Oxman to deliver a sobering reminder. Advances in 3D printing are unbelievably exciting, but 3D printing processes urgently need tweaking before this technology can be considered “truly biomimetic.” Currently, most 3D printers form product from toxic resins, ceramics, and powdered metal. This is where 3D printing diverges from nature’s manufacturing strategies. Nature’s builds from benign, decomposable feedstocks, like biological proteins and polysaccharides. If 3D printers did the same, they would be vastly improved. Carbon could be used as a feedstock for 3D printing. At the end of the 3D-printed, carbon-based product’s lifecycle its matrix-secured form could be disassociated in an enzyme bath, returning it to feedstock for 100% recycling. We can make these changes, but the window of opportunity to green 3D printing is narrowing. It won’t be long before 3D printers are a common household or office item. Benyus called the biomimicry community to action, encouraging us to play a critical role in the technology’s evolution by advocating for such changes. She elaborates in a National Geographic daily news piece titled “Improving 3D Printing by Copying Nature,” which I encourage you all to read.