February 20, 2018

MIT Group Moves to Grow Engineered Products

MIT Professor Neri Oxman believes a new bio-digital age is at hand, an age where bits, atoms, and genes, moves from assembly to biology. Oxman shared her work toward the future at SolidWorks World 2018, held in early February in Los Angeles.

“How can we no longer assemble our products but grow them?” asked Oxman, who leads the Medicated Matter Group at the MIT Media Lab. “This will come about through the intersection of materials, including additive and digital.”

Researchers within her group create biologically inspired design fabrication tools that serve as a bridge between the natural and the man-made environments.

The group has built a 6-meter pavilion made from shrimp shells, which is on display at MIT and represents the first biocompatible building, Oxman said.

Last year, she and her team called upon computer modeling and 3D printing technologies to bring death masks to into the present and thus explore their deeper meanings, Oxman said.

The result was Vespers, a series of death masks designed and printed in three dimensions, which were on display at the London’s Design Museum Fear and Love exhibit.

In the past, death masks were made of a single material, such as wax or plaster, poured over a recently deceased person’s face. They were a way to keep the dead alive in memory. The masks were also believed to strengthen the spirit of the deceased and guard their soul from evil spirits on their way to the afterworld, she added.

Her team sought a way to marry the art and design of these masks and the civilizations they sprang from with today’s most advanced technologies, Oxman said.

In another project, researchers in her group have created a method of recycling objects printed via additive manufacturing. Once objects are printed in specialized, recyclable materials, they’re fabricated, put to use, and—when no longer needed– submerged into water, and broken down into biodegradable materials.

MIT researchers have designed a system that can 3-D print the basic structure of an entire building. The system consists of a tracked vehicle that carries a large industrial robotic arm, which has a smaller, precision-motion robotic arm at its end.

Most desktop 3D printers use primarily on thermoplastics. As the market for printers grow, thermoplastics will be sent to pile in landfills, she said.

To cut down on the waste, researchers have developed what they call a Water-Based Robotic Fabrication process. The process uses biodegradable hydrogel composites that are mixed prior to or during extrusion and are capable of constructing large-scale 3D objects.

Since the control of the extrusion process is in the hands of the researchers, they were able to create a variety of composites without relying on the special formulations which are required with other traditional 3D printing technologies such as SLS, SLA, or FDM, Oxman said.

To create an object, various polysaccharides are extruded into a single nozzle, mixing the materials as they are placed onto the build platform. The printer itself is comprised of a custom-made multi-chamber extrusion system and also custom made nozzles attached to a robotic arm.

In one of their largest projects, two years ago, the MIT researchers created a robotic arm that can 3-D print the basic structure of an entire building. Structures built with this system could be produced faster and less expensively than traditional construction methods allow, the researchers say. A building could also be completely customized to the needs of a particular site and the desires of its maker.

Even the internal structure could be modified in new ways; different materials could be incorporated as the process goes along, and material density could be varied to provide optimum combinations of strength, insulation, or other properties, Oxman said.

Ultimately, the approach could enable the design and construction of new kinds of buildings that would not be feasible with traditional building methods.

The robotic printer system consists of a tracked vehicle that carries a large, industrial robotic arm, which has a smaller, precision-motion robotic arm at its end. This highly controllable arm can then be used to direct any conventional (or unconventional) construction nozzle, such as those used for pouring concrete or spraying insulation material, as well as additional digital fabrication end effectors, such as a milling head.

Unlike typical 3-D printing systems, most of which use some kind of an enclosed, fixed structure to support their nozzles and are limited to building objects that can fit within their overall enclosure, this free-moving system can construct an object of any size. As a proof of concept, the researchers used a prototype to build the basic structure of the walls of a 50-foot-diameter, 12-foot-high dome–a project that was completed in less than 14 hours of “printing” time, Oxman added.

For these initial tests, the system fabricated the foam-insulation framework used to form a finished concrete structure. This construction method, in which polyurethane foam molds are filled with concrete, is similar to traditional commercial insulated-concrete formwork techniques. Following this approach for their initial work, the researchers showed that the system can be easily adapted to existing building sites and equipment, and that it will fit existing building codes without requiring whole new evaluations, she said.

The creation of this system, which the researchers call a Digital Construction Platform (DCP), was motivated by the Mediated Matter group’s overall vision of designing buildings without parts.

The MIT group continues to work on recyclable 3D printing methods and materials. Researchers within the group visualize a future in which these type of projects—in which the engineered is intertwined with the natural world—become so common as to become normal.


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