Neri Oxman—Vision for the Future of Engineering

Kyle Maxey | Comments | February 27, 2018

Neri Oxman has a radical vision for the future of design and engineering.

Architect, designer and thinker, Neri Oxman has been at the forefront of computational design, additive manufacturing, material engineering and synthetic biology. Oxman’s work, which has been exhibited at museums across the world, represents some of the most stunning and strange manifestations of these technologies. But her work isn’t meant to celebrate form over function, rather Oxman’s creations are a call to action that ask the question, what will the future of product design and engineering look like as we move from the assembly age to the biodigital age?


Design by Algorithm, Design by Life

Oxman’s lab, the Mediated Matter group at MIT’s Media Lab, is aimed at taking the world of design from a place where products aren’t assembled from smaller components, but rather grown, much in the same way that nature produces complex “products.”

But why?

Oxman believes that the Industrial Revolution’s assembly line model has become outmoded. The pollution it produces from unrecyclable materials, energy waste and more isn’t sustainable, so a new mode for manufacturing and design is required.

Central to Oxman’s idea is the notion that manufacturing should use solutions already developed in nature, like the production of melanin to protect from UV radiation, to improve production design.

But melanin is a complex chemical, created by an even more complex set of biological reactions, and manufacturing melanin today is an expensive task ($315/g, according to Oxman) not suited for modern modes of production.

So the solution to this problem is to build biological systems into materials by means of genetic engineering. Oxman calls this process “parametric chemistry,” and it’s one of the most intriguing aspects of her work.

Essentially, parametric chemistry is a method of carefully placing select chemistry within a product’s material where its chemical potential can be leveraged to affect the way a material behaves. In the case of a melanin-impregnated material, melanin would be grafted to a material in select locations so that when the material is acted on by UV radiation, the material could respond by producing a protective pigment that resists the damage of UV rays.

But how will these new biologically driven material designs be produced? Contemporary manufacturing methods can’t produce the type of radical design that Oxman envisions. A new method of manufacturing will have to be developed. And that brings us to…


Additive Manufacturing, a Crucial Element of Oxman’s Idea

For years, Oxman has been working closely with 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys to create methods for building biologically active materials via additive manufacturing. Amazingly, her work with additive manufacturing has been met with some great success.

Through the use of additive manufacturing, Oxman and her MIT team have been able to build biopolymer materials made from chitin and other naturally manufactured bits with substances like melanin to create “living materials” that respond to their environment.

A 3D-printed sample of a material built using parametric chemistry. This sample includes reactive melanin that will darken as it comes into contact with damaging UV rays.

The reason that additive manufacturing is so critical to Oxman’s vision for design is that it gives engineers the ability to create complex materials that aren’t chemically homogenous by building a form layer by layer. This layer-by-layer approach makes it possible for designers to engineer their materials to have distinct qualities throughout their structure, something that’s seen frequently in nature. The process works like this: A 3D printer is loaded with a base material, say chitin and other substances, as well as a melanin-producing biomaterial. As the print begins, the chitin cocktail is laid down layer by layer as instructed by the engineer who built the material. Once the printer reaches a place in the material that requires melanin, the printer switches materials and adds the melanin where it’s needed. What’s more, the printer is not only creating a new material, but it’s also creating the form of whatever product is being built, making it an interesting analog for the way that biological structures are formed.

Unfortunately, this same process can’t be done as precisely with modern mass manufacturing technologies, so Oxman’s team has embraced additive manufacturing as the most viable means for experimental materials and product design. Given her team’s success with additive manufacturing, Oxman posits an idea that should begin being considered by engineering and design teams that want to stay at the forefront of innovation.

Additive manufacturing will be crucial to the development of biologically inspired material design made possible by parametric chemistry.


The Relevance of Oxman’sWork

While additive manufacturing, let alone parametric chemistry, is still a fledgling field, it’s become increasingly clear that advances in its mass manufacturing performance and additive manufacturing material libraries are occurring at an accelerated rate. The same can also be said for computational design, where generative algorithms are pushing innovation to nearly unimaginable extremes. However, these technologies have not yet reached maturity.

And there’s the rub.

Oxman’s work exists in place where both of these technologies have already reached maturity. That’s too say, Oxman’s work is both futurist and aspirational and is relevant to today’s engineers because it points the way to a possible design future. But before that future arrives, a number of issues have to be resolved.

One question that remains with Oxman’s work is the hidden conceit that bioinspired, computational design can offer limitless and unique solutions to design challenges. While the constraints of a design challenge vary from project to project, and nature seems to have an ingenious solution for every design challenge, one has to wonder if a standard computational design tool kit of algorithms will lead to a proliferation of biologically inspired, yet nearly identical, products that cease to be unique in appearance and function.

The answer may be “no,” provided the engineers in charge are sophisticated programmers who can retool an already established algorithm, or build one from scratch. Maybe the answer remains “no” if engineering teams engaged in this type of avant-garde design attempt to employ AI to create new models for design optimization.

But since that future hasn’t arrived, another question still lingers for me: Will this radical vision for design be transformed into a mass-manufacturing paradigm that eventually wears the wonder from these unique forms? Will additive manufacturing really make short-run, unique and bespoke products a viable means of putting products in a customer’s hands? Can nature provide a more sustainable mode for producing complex goods?

The answer to these questions are still unknown, but from all appearances, it seems that Oxman is at a critical nexus for answering these questions. What’s more, her insights into design may be propelling engineering towards an exciting new future.

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