Silkworms work with robot to make 3D-printed dome

A team from MIT's Media Lab pair a robotic arm with a swarm of 6,500 silkworms to explore the relationship between digital and biological fabrication.

Steven Keating

Animals can do amazing things, and their behaviors and physical properties have inspired some groundbreaking tech. But what if we could do more with what animals make? Spider silk, for instance, has a tensile strength similar to that of alloyed steel -- and some fascinating potential uses.

But the silkworm is by far one of the most productive animals we rely upon. The silk it produces is strong, lightweight, soft, and beautiful -- and perhaps there are ways to use the creatures in new ways.

To explore the potential relationship between digital and biological fabrication, MIT Media Lab's Mediated Matter research group has created the Silk Pavilion -- a 12-foot-diameter dome that's a collaboration between human designers, machines, and grubs.

The robotic arm, with a 3D printer head attached to it, created the primary structure. Consisting of 26 polygonal panels, it is formed of a continuous silk thread inspired by the silkworm's ability to create an entire cocoon out of one single, multiple-property thread.

Once the dome's skeleton was complete, researchers positioned 6,500 silkworms on the bottom rim of the scaffolding, filling in the empty spaces with a raw silk canopy. After the silkworms encased themselves in cocoons, they were removed from the structure.

The team, led by professor Neri Oxman, believes that studying the way that silkworms build can pave the way for more efficient fabrication techniques, particularly in regard to architectural structures. Oxman told Dezeen, "In traditional 3D printing, the gantry size poses an obvious limitation; it is defined by three axes, and typically requires the use of support material, both of which are limiting for the designer who wishes to print in larger scales and achieve structural and material complexity. Once we place a 3D printing head on a robotic arm, we free up these limitations almost instantly."

Tiny magnets were placed on the silkworms' heads in order to motion-track their movement as they built their cocoons. This, in turn, allowed the team to study how that information can be fed to a 3D printer for the creation of large-scale structure.

(Source: Crave Australia)

 

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