How spiders might inspire the 3D-printed industrial revolution

Image: AP Photo/Koji Sasahara
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With every passing week, it seems that we are edging closer to a 3D printer that might actually be useful. Recently, a printer was announced that could rapidly print objects that were previously impossible to manufacture, followed by the announcement of an even faster printer. But the issue with most 3D printers on the market is that they can only print something smaller than themselves. (For now, 3D printers can only print something that fits on the bed of the printer, otherwise it gets complicated.) Jordan Brandt, a futurist at Autodesk (the company whose design software powers most 3D printing projects), tells Quartz that the next stage of 3D printing will require going beyond thinking outside the box—to ditching the box altogether.

It has long been suggested that the next industrial revolution will come from 3D printing, but Brandt says so far, “we’ve been using new technology to do old stuff.” We’ll need to stop thinking of 3D printers as just boxes. To create bigger objects in the future, we’ll need “swarms of printers” working together to fulfill specific tasks, Brandt says. “We need to copy spiders.”

Spiders are a great model to follow, Brandt explains, because they are small creatures that can create intricate structures much larger than themselves. Modern commercial robots are limited to mundane tasks like cleaning our living rooms and dancing to our pop music, but we could soon program small printing robots to work together to build 3D objects, Brandt believes. Each robot would perform one job on one area of the project, printing with one material, as it and its cohorts work together to create something larger than themselves. Spiders aren’t the only creatures that can work together to create new structures. “Nature is an additive process,” Brandt says.

While there are many researchers working on the problem of scaling up 3D printing—there’s a team at Lockheed working on 3D-printed plane wings with non-box-shaped printers—most are still thinking in terms of traditional industrial design practices, Brandt says. But with advances in computing, Brandt argues that we can design and iterate like nature has, although now we can move a lot faster. “Nature wasn’t stupid,” he says. With machine learning—where a computer is given a problem and a set of parameters to work within to then determine the best solution—we can mimic the process of evolution in minutes, rather than millennia.“Things end up looking very biological,” Brandt says.

While arachnid-inspired robots crawling around building things may not appeal to everyone, Brandt says nature will inspire more industrial design as technology becomes more intricate and harder to replicate using traditional manufacturing processes. In the future, Brandt says plainly, “design is going to look more organic.”