3D printing helps artists envision a better future in Broken Nature

Thematic exhibition at Milan Design Museum explores environment and human survival

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The XXII Triennale di Milano, Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival, highlights the concept of restorative design and studies the state of the threads that connect humans to their natural environments. Broken Nature is composed of a thematic exhibition and a number of international participants solicited through official channels. As much as the exhibit focuses on nature and sustainability, several of the artworks on display made intensive use of 3D printing as a mean of producing objects in a more environmentally conscious manner and/or with more environmentally friendly materials.

In exploring architecture and design objects and concepts at all scales and in all materials, Broken Nature celebrates design’s ability to offer powerful insight into the key issues of our age, moving beyond pious deference and inconclusive anxiety. By turning its attention to human existence and persistence, the XXII Triennale will promote the importance of creative practices in surveying our species’ bonds with the complex systems in the world, and designing reparations when necessary, through objects, concepts, and new systems. Even to those who believe that the human species is inevitably going to become extinct at some point in the future, design presents the means to plan a more elegant ending. It can ensure that the next dominant species will remember us with a modicum of respect: as dignified and caring, if not intelligent, beings.

Broken Nature
Even before entering the actual exhibit, 3D printing objects are already showing the way as a 3D printed coral barrier stands at the bottom of the staircase leading up to the first floor.  We covered this story, that sqw Melbourne-based Reef Design Lab install the world’s largest 3D printed coral reef in the Maldives. The artificial reef, designed by Reef Design Lab industrial designer Alex Goad, consists of hundreds of ceramic and concrete modules, each designed to look and feel like real coral.

Even parts that are not explicitly 3D printed make use of resins that can easily benefit from the unique abilities of 3D technologies to reproduce custom parts from a 3D reconstruction. That may or may not be the case for the fossil shown above, but the fact remains that 3D printing can significantly simplify any reconstruction process.

Broken Nature In other instances, the use of 3D printing is much clearer, such as in this 3D printed terracotta vase. The earthenware product is part of an installation titled Adaptive Manufacturing, by Olivier Van Herpt and Sander Wassink. The artists strove to introduce an element of the uniqueness of imperfect human-made works into a mechanically produced vase. They thus equipped their 3D printer with sensors able to reproduce textures from surrounding external factors.

Broken Nature

Yet another openly 3D printed piece by Carolien Niebling uses the technology to envision “The Sausage of the Future”. In a collaboration with famous chefs and designers, she envisions a sausage made of food products such as insects, cauliflower, romanesco broccoli and pistachio as a mean to counteract the effects of intensive animal farming.

Another famous 3D printed projects we’ve seen before comes from MIT CSAIL (Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory). SoFi is a soft robotic fish that swims along real ones in coral reefs, non-intrusively documenting marine life.

Broken Nature

Nervous System, one of the most advanced experimental group exploring 3D printing, presented a project based on bioprinting and biomaterials. The project in collaboration with Miller Lab, is titled Tissue Printing and takes inspiration from nature to expolore the potential of advanced bioprinting technologies to help support and restore delicate kidneys, liver and pancreatic cells. The 3D printed parts shown above are bioprinted blood vessels that could infuse functional organ replacements in human patients, based on the idea that bioficial organs are not designed but rather “grown”.

The project Algae Geographies by Atelier Luma (co-produced with MEDSEA Foundation) investigates new values for wetlands as incubators for locally grown biomaterials. As one of the research directions within Atelier Luma, the project has evolved towards a transnational platform with key partners in the Mediterranean region, tapping onto the unexplored connections between local and raw biomaterials, users, makers and production methods associated with them. Combining design and biology, Algae Geographies proposes new models for circular production through bio- and decentralized fabrication.

The objects on display (shown in the gallery above) showcase the wide range of explorations enabled by this research platform: 3D printed domestic objects made of microalgae and biopolymers; textiles dyed and printed with algae pigments; biolaminates with algae and starch-based polymer; hybrid basketry combining 3D-printing and handweaving and handwoven objects made with wetland fibers that include algae. They draw on cultural archives from the diverse locations where they were produced – Arles, Cairo, Istanbul, Sardinia – and defy the preconceptions with which we value materials and production techniques.

It’s, however, only about 3D printing with natural materials. By combining the benefits of streamlined production of non-natural polymers such as nylon with other materials it is also possible to create products that have a lesser impact on environmental sustainability. In this case, footwear designer Liz Ciokajlo took on the challenge of devising a protective booth that reimagines the relationship between materials and space exploration. In this scenario, an astronaut’s sweat is filtered and combined with fungal mycelium layered onto a nylon SLS 3D printed inner structure, partly feeding the fungal culture for the generation of grown materials.

There are also projects that focus exclusively on the original use of highly sustainable materials in everyday products and, while they do not involve 3D printing now, they may do so in the future. That’s the case for adidas’ ULTRABoos Deep Ocean Blue shoes, which feature an upper part made from recycled ocean plastic (image on the left). Similarly, the LEGO Plants from Plants concept uses plastic made from plants instead of standard ABS to make LEGO plan pieces. This fits within LEGO’s goal of using only sustainable materials for all toys and packaging by 2030. After all, if it ain’t broken yet, why fix it?

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Davide Sher

Since 2002, Davide has built up extensive experience as a technology journalist, market analyst and consultant for the additive manufacturing industry. Born in Milan, Italy, he spent 12 years in the United States, where he completed his studies at SUNY USB. As a journalist covering the tech and videogame industry for over 10 years, he began covering the AM industry in 2013, first as an international journalist and subsequently as a market analyst, focusing on the additive manufacturing industry and relative vertical markets. In 2016 he co-founded London-based VoxelMatters. Today the company publishes the leading news and insights websites and, as well as VoxelMatters Directory, the largest global directory of companies in the additive manufacturing industry.

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