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Crafted by Nature – Part I

Crafted by Nature is a new class, here, at the Media Lab, taught by our new prof. Neri Oxman. The mission of the class is no less than:

We will invent novel fabrication methods inspired by nature and reconsider the way things are designed and made in the 21st century.

After explaining how the class will move through the semester, Neri asked us to find and pick a specimen (a system that you can find in nature) that we find enchanting and observe its behavior to external stimuli. On of her examples was a pine cone – the helical geometry of the cone allows the pine cone to withstand compression, by shifting its seeds (the cone uses this process to distribute the seeds in spring). This seems easier than you would think. Beauty often roots itself in simplicity, but in nature nothing is simple if you look closely enough. I think everyone tried to find a beautiful, yet functionally interesting specimen (btw it’s interesting that in the human psyche functionality and beauty are not independent from each other. In fact, the function relating these two is one of the most sought after relationship there is).

My specimen was a sponge. I loved it, because it looked simple. 4 months later, looking back, I have to say it’s way more complicated than I thought. I teamed up with Marshall Prado and Cara Liberatore, two awesome students from the Harvard Graduate School of Design to base a project that learns something from sea sponges. To get a deeper understanding of internal structure of sponges and since we are at the very center of the the dorkosphere, we CT scanned a sea sponge (Thanks Kenny!):

Sponge CT scan I. from David Lakatos on Vimeo.

Sponge CT scan II. from David Lakatos on Vimeo.

Sea sponge CT scan III. from David Lakatos on Vimeo.

We started off by doing very low level material tests. This phase was solely exploratory, without clear directions. From the start we were trying to replicate the intricate structure of sponges – the interconnected chamber system of void. Our process was mostly molding silicone or urethane onto other materials. An overview of our processes throughout the semester can be seen below.

After playing with materials and processes for a month or so (see pics above and shoot me an email if you want to know more) we concluded that there are two ways to replicate the sponge structure: the negative or the positive approach. The positive approach was to create the chambers individually as hollow enclosed spaces and than to connect them with another material (glue them together). The negative approach was exactly the opposite philosophy (wow, aren’t we clever) – after constructing the void system from any (even flexible) material, we casted material to the remaining space and voila, we got a sponge. We explored both directions and ended up creating our final sponge using the latter method.

For the positive approach we needed a machine that constructs arbitrary hollow shapes for us. So I built a roto-molder aka. spin-caster. It looks like this:

Spincasting III. from David Lakatos on Vimeo.

Spincasting … from David Lakatos on Vimeo.

Spincasting II. from David Lakatos on Vimeo.

So what’s going on here. This is an under actuated robot controlled by a manual drill. There are two frames inside that spin anything tied to the center frame in all directions. OK sounds fancy but why? Centripetal force is the answer – by rotating a two piece mold constantly around this machine can make hollow casts. So if I mill out a sphere from foam and put a tiny bit of silicone into the mold and spin it using the spincaster until the demold time it will look like this:

The plan was to glue these hollow spheres together to get a sponge. Unfortunately we had a lot of problems with my little creature and with bonding the spheres together. So we moved to the negative approach. With a lot of balloons. ^_^

More in the next post …

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