As part of our special report on manufacturing, we asked Neri Oxman, a professor at the MIT Media Lab and an internationally recognized artist whose work is part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to create a sculpture that would illustrate the future of manufacturing. (See a gallery of images here.)
What she produced, in collaboration with MIT materials science professor Craig Carter, is a powerful demonstration of the possibilities of 3-D printing, using techniques that take advantage of the capabilities of 3-D printers in ways that conventional manufacturing techniques cannot.
3-D printing encompasses a range of technologies—from inkjet heads mounted on gantries that can deposit plastics layer by layer to form intricate models, to more recent laser-based systems that sinter metal powders to make durable parts for airplanes. 3-D printers have mainly been used for prototyping, but they are becoming an option for manufacturing as well, and may eventually even be used to print buildings, Oxman says. But designers and architects haven’t yet learned to take advantage of their capabilities.
Oxman, who trained as an architect, says buildings are designed today with an eye toward the components they can be made of—sheets of plywood, panes of glass, steel beams, and concrete columns. As a result, those designs are limited, in much the way Lego bricks constrain the shapes that children can build. There are similar limitations in conventional manufacturing; there are some shapes that simply can’t be built with existing molds and machining tools, and designers have had to design with these limits in mind.
Oxman is exploring ways to break with conventional design thinking by looking to patterns and processes found in nature, and using equations that define these processes to generate new designs. The results are often surprising shapes and structures that can be made only with 3-D printers.
To help develop the algorithms needed, Oxman has teamed up with Carter. In some cases, the algorithms provide new aesthetics, but they can also have practical applications—such as varying the structure to help bear loads. For one sculpture—a model of a chaise longue reclined chair—the team combined algorithms taken from nature with a map of the pressure a body exerts on a chair. The result depends on where the algorithms determine the chair needs to be soft to provide comfort and where it needs to be stiff to provide support.