Autodesk Team Seeks Inspiration from Nature to Find Safe Materials for Sustaining the Future of 3D Printing

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autodesk-logo-cmyk-color-logo-white-text-large-2-bigaThere’s very little about the 3D printing industry that fails to be interesting, and as Autodesk enters the scene beyond the AutoCAD scope, things should heat up further–and especially considering what has caught their attention: safe materials for the future.

Already responsible for a software revolution in technology, Autodesk has made a new and recent foray into 3D printing with the Ember, as well as their open source platform, Spark, already adopted by numerous and respected companies like 3D Hubs to titans like Microsoft.  Autodesk’s focus from here may be that of pushing the agenda more forcefully toward an environmentally friendly technology with further emphasis on the self-sustainability angle that is such an important–but often overlooked–benefit in 3D printing.

3dp_source3_spark_logoOf course, it doesn’t take more than a brief introduction to the world of 3D printing to realize that there are numerous challenges to the environment currently as the world of plastics marches on even more boldly, with thousands of new 3D models in the mix, not to mention all the failed prints and materials that go straight to the trash heap when they cannot be recycled. While so much time, cost, packaging, and shipping expense can be saved through 3D printing, the down sides of materials like resin are a huge concern as it is highly toxic and simply cannot be recycled.

The question of how to get on board with materials that are better for the environment is completely relevant, and one that perhaps should have been asked before everybody started pumping out plastic and then shrieking about the refuse piling up.

In hopes of finding a good answer, Autodesk has teamed up with the Biomimicry Institute and the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley.

“One thing people don’t realize is that, in the material world, there’s a limited set of materials available for this purpose,” said Dawn Danby, senior sustainable design program manager at Autodesk, pointing out one of the major challenges in their study–and in 3D printing overall.

“There’s a lot of discussion about 3D printing — that it could be more energy efficient, cut down on waste, etc. We hope to move the sector in that direction. But there’s a limited number of polymers.”

So in studying what to do, they are studying the most fundamental thing–nature. This is often where the most brilliant minds go for inspiration, seeking answers from the most comprehensive and often perfect ‘machine’ of all.

The research–and its focus on resin–is very serious indeed. The group does not see it, in its current state, as a viable long-term option.

“We are looking for more bio-friendly materials. Can it be sourced with components that are derived from more natural substances? Can we look at biomimicry and how nature prints? After all, nature has been printing for billions of years. … It is more than picking up inspiration from nature; it is looking at polymers that nature uses to make things,” says Shalom Ormsby, 3D printing user experience manager at Autodesk.


The Autodesk Ember 3D printer

As they turn to nature for answers and for a more safe 3D printing material for the long run, the group is taking a look at how materials in nature that are able to undergo stress were formed in the first place. They have a very technical definition of what would be more safe, and are looking for a material that will allow 3D printing to flourish thoroughly, rather than becoming an environmental nightmare of sorts.

“The business case for sustainable 3D printing is really clear because of the energy savings, material savings, transport and packaging savings implicit in its use,” Danby said. “But if it still requires petroleum-based inputs and still creates products that, at the end of their usable life, are not recyclable, then it has not lived up to its potential,” she said.

“The work I do in sustainability is highly tied to making 3D printing better.”

No real details have been released yet as to what the team has found, but they are definitely embroiled in looking at the biomimicry angle, looking into it ‘as a lens for sustainable material innovation.’ And if they get what they want out of the project, they may come up with something yet unheard of in terms of performance, quality, and safety.

The world looks on as an entirely new paradigm for manufacturing unfolds before us all, letting loose untold numbers of new products and inventions made mainly out of plastic, but other materials also. Considering the amount of damage that has been done to the earth over hundreds of years from worldwide production practices causing fumes and toxins and a long list of issues causing health problems, this would seem to be the perfect time to effect real change in the way we make things.  Discuss this article in the Nature and 3D Printing Material forum on

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