Building the Future: 3D Printing and Silkworms

arcology_crystalWhen it comes to building the homes, apartment blocks and businesses headquarters of the future,  designers and urban planners are forced to contend with a few undeniable realities. No only are these buildings going to be need to be greener and more sustainable, they will need to be built in such a way that doesn’t unnecessarily burden the environment.

Currently, the methods for erecting a large city building are criminally inefficient. Between producing the building materials – concrete, steel, wood, granite – and putting it all together, a considerable amount of energy is expended in the form of emissions and electricity, and several tons of waste are produced.

anti-grav3d2Luckily, there are many concepts currently on the table that will alter this trend. Between using smarter materials, more energy-efficient design concepts, and environmentally-friendly processes, the future of construction and urban planning may someday become sustainable and clean.

At the moment, many such concepts involve advances made in 3-D printing, a technology that has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years. Between anti-gravity printers and sintering, there seems to be incredible potential for building everything from settlements on the moon to bridges and even buildings here on Earth.

bridge_3One case in particular comes to us from Spain, where four students from the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia have created a revolutionary 3-D printing robot. It’s known as Stone Spray, a machine that can turn dirt and sand into finished objects such as chairs, walls, and even full-blown bridges.

The brainchild of Anna Kulik, Inder Prakash, Singh Shergill, and Petr Novikov, the robot takes sand or soil, adds a special binding agent, then spews out a fully formed architectural object of the designers’ choosing. As Novikov said in an interview with Co.Design:

The shape of the resulting object is created in 3-D CAD software and then transferred to the robot, defining its movements. So the designer has the full control of the shape.

robot-on-site_0So far, all the prototypes – which include miniature stools and sculptures – are just 20 inches long, about the size of a newborn. But the team is actively planning on increasing the sizes of the objects this robot can produce to architectural size. And they are currently working on their first full-scale engineering model: a bridge (pictured above).

If successful, the robot could represent a big leap forward in the field of sustainable design. Growing a structure from the earth at your feet circumvents one of the most resource-intensive aspects of architecture, which is the construction process.

And speaking of process, check out this video of the Stone Spray in action:


At the same time, however, there are plans to use biohacking to engineer tiny life forms and even bacteria that would be capable of assembling complex structures. In a field that closely resembles “swarm robotics” – where thousands of tiny drones are programmed to build thing – “swarm biologics” seeks to use thousands of little creatures for the same purpose.

silkpavilionMIT has taken a bold step in this arena, thanks to their creation by the Mediated Matter Group that has rebooted the entire concept of “printed structures”. It’s called the Silk Pavilion, a beautiful structures whose hexagonal framework was laid by a robot, but whose walls were shell was created by a swarm of 6,500 live silkworms.

It’s what researchers call a “biological swarm approach to 3-D printing”, but could also be the most innovate example of biohacking to date. While silkworms have been used for millennia to give us silk, that process has always required a level of harvesting. MIT has discovered how to manipulate the worms to shape silk for us natively.

silkpavilion-2The most immediate implications may be in the potential for a “templated swarm” approach, which could involve a factory making clothes just by releasing silkworms across a series of worm-hacking mannequins. But the silkworms’ greater potential may be in sheer scale.

As Mediated Matter’s director Neri Oxman told Co.Design, the real bonus to their silkworm swarm its that it embodies everything an additive fabrication system currently lacks. 

It’s small in size and mobile in movement, it produces natural material of variable mechanical properties, and it spins a non-homogeneous, non-woven textile-like structure.

What’s more, the sheer scale is something that could come in very handy down the road. By bringing 3-D printing together with artificial intelligence to generate printing swarms operating in architectural scales, we could break beyond the bounds of any 3-D printing device or robot, and build structures in their actual environments.

silkpavilion-1In addition, consider the fact that the 6,500 silkworms were still viable after they built the pavilion. Eventually, the silkworms could all pupate into moths on the structure, and those moths can produce 1.5 million eggs. That’s enough to theoretically supply what the worms need to create another 250 pavilions.

So on top of everything else, this silkworm fabrication process is self-propagating, but unlike plans that would involve nanorobots, no new resources need to be consumed to make this happen. Once again, it seems that when it comes to the future of technology, the line between organic and synthetic is once more blurred!

And of course, MIT Media Lab was sure to produce a video of their silkworms creating the Silk Pavilion. Check it out:


Sources:
fastcodesign.com, (2)

Climate Crisis: Living, Breathing Cities of the Future

future-city2The human race has been thinking the way it lives in the past few decades, due mainly to a number of challenges posed by climate change and resource development. This is not only an environmentally and socially responsible idea, its an absolute necessity given the sheer number of people that live in urban sprawl, and the many more that will need homes, sanitation, food and energy in the near future.

And a number of interesting concepts are being proposed. Using striking technological breakthroughs across multiple fields of study, designers are moving closer to making lightweight buildings that can move, and perhaps even think and feel. Instead of hard, polished building faces, emerging prototypes from some of the world’s research centers suggest future cities that would resemble living, breathing environments.

masdar_city1To break it down succinctly, urban environments of the future will be built of “smarter” materials, will most likely be constructed using advanced techniques – possibly involving robots or bacteria – and will be powered by greener, more sustainable means. Sanitation and irrigation will also be provided and involve a fair degree of recycling, and food will be grown in-house.

And while much of this will be accomplished with good old-fashioned plumbing, air vents, and electrical circuits, a good deal more could come in the form of structures that are made to resemble and even behave like living organisms. Might sound like a distant prospect or purely theoretical, but in fact many of these ideas are already being implemented in existing and planned cities around the world.

Scale_model_Masdar_cityFor example, the planned community of Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, designer Alexander Rieck has helped create a vast central cluster of opening and closing solar powered “sunflower” umbrellas that capture the sun’s rays during the day and fold at night, releasing stored heat in a continual cycle. In addition, the concept of the Wind Stalk is being pursued to generate wind-farms which don’t rely on turbines, and look just like standing fields of grass.

Another project comes from the American designer Mitchell Joachim of Terreform ONE (Open Network Ecology), who’s plans for a vast site covering Brooklyn’s Navy Yard call for the engineering of living tissues into viable buildings. This would involve concepts like his “living tree house” which involves building a human habitat by merging the construction process with the surrounding environment.


Such a project not only presents a way of building structures in a way that is far more energy-efficient, but also fully-integrated into the ecology. In addition, they would even be able to provide a measure of food for their inhabitants and be able to clean the local air thanks to the fact that they are made from carbon-capturing trees and plants.

And there was this project by Near-Living Architecture which was recently shown at the London Building Centre Gallery. Here we see a floating canopy of aluminum meshwork fitted with dense masses of interconnected glass and polymer filters that houses a carbon-capture system that works in much the same way that limestone is deposited by living marine environments.


Within each cell of the suspended filter array, valves draw humid air through chemical chambers where chalk-like precipitate forms, an incremental process of carbon fixing. This is not only an example of how futures of the city will help remove pollution from the air, but how buildings themselves will merge biological with artificial, creating a sort of “biomimetic building”.

What it all comes down to is breaking with the conventional paradigm of architecture which emphasizes clean, linear structures that utilize idealized geometric shapes, highly processed materials, and which create sanitary artificial environments. The new paradigm calls for a much more holistic approach, where materials are more natural (built of local materials, carbon, or biomimetic compounds) forms are interwoven, and the structures function like organics.

future_city1All of this cannot come soon enough. According to a recent UN report, three-quarters of humanity will live in our swelling cities by 2050.The massive influx to our planet’s urban populations could create a whole host of problems – from overcrowding to air pollution, extra stress on natural resources and loss of habitats to grow more food. The most obvious solution to this problem is to make sure that these future cities are part of the solution, and not more of the same dirty living spaces that generate megatons of waste and pollution year after year.

Hope you’re enjoying this “Climate Crisis” segment, and that its not getting anybody down. Granted, its a heavy subject, but crises have a way of bringing the best and brightest people and ideas to the fore, which is what I hope to present here. By addressing our present and future needs with innovative concepts, we stand to avert disaster and create a better world for future generations.

Up next, I plan to take a look at some of the air-cleaning building designs that are currently being produced and considered. Stay tuned!

Sources: bbc.com, (2)