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The Science of Material Ecology

Thu, 09/23/2010 - 8:04am
Kim Ukura, Associate Editor, PD&D

"Beast" created by Neri Oxman and colleages at MIT
"Beast," created by Neri Oxman and colleages at MIT, is a perfomrative chaise lounge made of a single continuous curface that has different material properties throughout.



Imagine a building with walls of varied material properties that can respond to the way the wind blows on the elevation of the building.

For most designers, fabrication is a service used at the end of a design process, keeping the design discrete from production. But for architect-designer-researcher Neri Oxman, fabrication is an integral part of her design process and actually helps generate a product’s form and function.

Using Object Technologies’ Connex500 3D printer, Oxman and her colleagues at MIT are working on designs that mimic the way the natural world works and developing forms that are highly customized to fit their environment.

“Materials are indeed the new software,” Oxman says. “In the future, designers will be manipulating material behavior through fabrication just as they can control the shape of things through CAD. Eventually, materials will self-assemble to generate form.”

Oxman has recently been appointed assistant professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab, but she previously studied medicine at the Hebrew University and the Technion Institute of Technology. She shifted her focus to architecture later, graduating from the AA School of Architecture in London.

For Oxman, the shift from medicine to architecture was a shift in perspective rather than a change in careers.

"In a way, engineering and science are about analysis and architecture is more about synthesis,” Oxman says. “This relation between the ability to analyze phenomena and synthesize new phenomena is something that really interests me.”

“It’s like seeing the same physical phenomena through different lenses – whether driven by artistic curiosity, design innovation, or scientific discovery – and then being able to overlap those lenses,” she continues.

Developing Material Ecology

This interest has led to the development of an artistic/scientific philosophy Oxman calls “material ecology” – an approach that explores the relationships between produced material objects and the environment.

“Material ecology is synonymous with the ecology of the artificial world,” Oxman explains. “I am hoping that one can see it as a subfield of design that explores the interrelationship between our artificial environment – what we wear, how we use our products, how we construct our habitat – and how those constructions relate to the natural environment.”

Neri Oxman photo
Neri Oxman, assistant professor of Media Arts
and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab.

Recently, Oxman has started to work with Objet to look more thoroughly at biologically inspired fabrication technologies and how fabrication techniques can be innovated in a way that enhances the natural environment.

This includes techniques as seemingly simple as printing objects with biodegradable materials, or as complicated as printing objects that would respond to the environment physically – expanding or contracting with thermal pressure for example.

Oxman compares the idea to a tree. Although trees all have similar features – trunks, branches, leaves, bark – the form of a tree is directly related to its surrounding environment. This means that, “Every tree is different.”

Biologically inspired fabrication would try to apply this principle to manufactured products, developing them in a way where function and form are intertwined and objects can adapt to user needs and wants.

Building a Beast

One recent example is a chaise lounge – “Beast” – that Oxman co-created with Dr. Craig Carter, a colleague from the Department of Mineral Science at MIT.

When designing Beast, Oxman wanted to use a single material that she could manipulate to serve multiple functions – being soft for areas where a user would sit, but stiff in places where the chaise needed to stand up. Using a pressure map study, Oxman was able to analyze the piece and dictate the softness and hardness of the cells on the body of the piece and adjust their composition accordingly. 

Integrating fabrication and design allowed Oxman to set these parameters down to the tiniest units of measure within the piece, then fabricate the design with those specific requirements.

“Imagine a building that is made of walls of varied material properties and the variation of properties correspond to the way the wind blows on the elevation of the building,” Oxman explains. “The science involves relating the digital representation of the form to the actual fabrication process.”

The principles and techniques used in Beast are similar to those used across Oxman’s design portfolio – customization and variation. Because of rapid prototyping technology, Oxman says every design can be generated over and over, but with slight differences depending on the landscape she is working within, similar to the way nature operates.

Likewise, Oxman’s work traditionally only uses one material, but that material is given various properties depending on function in a particular area of the design.

“Instead of putting components together like steel and rubber – so rudimentary to traditional twentieth century design – the great thing about Object is that it allowed me to think of any product as one material that can vary, that can respond locally to the type of performance,” Oxman says.

“The natural world, particularly the biological world,” she continues, “is displacing the machine as a general model of design ideas.”

For more information on Oxman, visit www.materialecology.com. For more information on Object, visit www.objet.com.

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