Improving 3D Printing By Copying Nature

(National Geographic) Janine Benyus, a biologist, author, and innovation consultant, hopes the 3D printer revolution can be improved by modeling it after natural processes. Benyus, who wrote “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature” and co-founded the institute Biomimicry 3.8, would like to see a transition in manufacturing—from big, smoke-belching factories to small, clean desktop printers. The key to making it truly sustainable, she said, lies in mimicking how a natural ecosystem functions.

One big problem with 3D printing in its current form, said Benyus, is that many of the printers rely on toxic building materials, in the form of an increasing array of polymers (plastics), resins, and metal powders.
“Some ‘makers’ [3D printer users] are starting to see their skin reacting, and when you look at the material data safety sheets for these materials you see serious warnings,” said Benyus. That’s a concern, because people are using the printers in their homes and inhaling the fumes, she said.

Instead, Benyus argues that all the materials used in 3-D printing should be common and safe for anyone to handle. They should be sourced from local feedstocks, and at the end of their lives, they should be “unzippable” into reusable materials.

To Benyus, one of the lessons of biomimicry is the model of distributed growth and production. “An oak tree makes lots of leaves to catch the sun, not one big leaf,” she said. With 3D printing, everyone can become their own manufacturer. They’ll be able to make small items at home, and if they need something larger or more complicated, they could use the neighborhood printer, or maybe one at a local store. “Designs will crisscross the globe, instead of products,” said Benyus, and this would obviously produce savings in both shipping costs and associated emissions.

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