Swarm of silkworms help print a building

MIT researchers have constructed a pavilion with the help of 6,500 silkworms.

Silkworms as 3-D printers? For millennia, they’ve provided us with silk, but the process has always required some amount of harvesting (boiling cocoons to create silk filament). Now, MIT researchers have found a way to manipulate the worms to shape the silk for us. Co.Design reports.

The Silk Pavilion (pictured) is a dome-like structure with 26 polygonal panels. Using silk fibers, a robot laid the basic framework for the pavilion. Then, 6,500 live silkworms, positioned at the bottom rim, locally reinforced the gaps -- and extruded the pavilion’s ghostly shell.

It’s what’s called a “biological swarm approach to 3-D printing.” Here’s a pretty cool video showing the silkworm fabrication process.

“The silkworm embodies everything an additive fabrication system currently lacks,” says Neri Oxman from the MIT Media Lab. “It’s small in size and mobile in movement, it produces natural material of variable mechanical properties, and it spins a non-homogeneous, non-woven textile-like structure.”

Why should printing be non-homogeneous?

Imagine if you were constructing a building, but you wanted to leave room for a window. Or imagine you were sewing a shirt, but you wanted the elbows to be more flexible than cuffs.

By exploiting biological hacks -- tweaking light, heat, and basic geometric scaffolding -- researchers can guide the worms to create the intricate and varied patterns necessary to complex creations.

The greatest potential may be sheer scale. The swarm can break outside the bounds of even the largest 3-D printer, building structures in its actual environment.

And then there’s the potential for self-propagation. Those thousands of silkworms are still viable after construction is finished (they actually pupate into moths on the structure). And within a few months, if the sculpture was left as is, those moths can go on to produce 1.5 million eggs -- with the potential of constructing up to 250 additional pavilions.

[MIT Media Lab via Co.Design]

Image: Steven Keating

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com