Introduction: With everything we use coming from natural resources, and with natural ecosystems often considered models of sustainability, does this mean that every nature-inspired 3D printed product is actually more environmentally friendly?
Exploring nature makes a lot of sense for inspiring 3D printing. In fact, many 3D printing companies have begun exploring the concept of bionics and have revealed some cool nature-inspired designs in the process. Today, we are still exploring the concept of sustainability and the feasibility of translating it into industrial applications.
Researcher and Associate Professor Flavia Libonati's research works at the intersection of nature, materials, 3D printing and engineering. Her research focuses on the design of toughened and novel composite materials from molecular to engineering scales for biostructural materials such as bone and pearl layers. She uses an enumerative design approach that combines natural and engineering principles, including 3D printing, to improve the mechanical properties of materials in order to successfully combine them in the best possible way.
From the beginning, Libonati says, "We are dealing with a two-way process. 3D printing can change bionics and vice versa. On the one hand, 3D printing has revolutionized everything, including the bionic design approach. The technology and its principles have opened up the design space, broken down geometric manufacturing barriers, and now enable designers to 3D print components with very complex shapes. On the other hand, bionics has transformed 3D printing, opening up new perspectives and variations on a functional level. For example, it helps explore new material possibilities. For example, 4D printing allows for new functions in printed components by adding new dimensions, so it goes beyond the simple manufacturing of parts. "
The professor further explained the natural principles that engineers utilize: "Nature is a divine carving knife that creates a variety of materials that are versatile, efficient and sustainable. If you think about the basic materials you see in nature - layers of pearls, bamboo, bones, etc." They have a very complex structure and are very diverse, and this structural and functional diversity can be seen in the same materials. For example, bone is a material with many substructures composed of minerals and proteins. These structures are mixed together at different length scales to produce different complex macroscopic structures capable of performing different functions in the body.
Bone tissue, although it has the opposite mechanical strength of a similarly structured sponge, is made of similar building blocks for both. We can do the same thing with 3D printing. We start with these building blocks, and then we study how natural and specific local shapes affect and enhance the performance of the whole part. After that, we try to combine these building blocks and diversify the various substructures to highlight composites with different properties.
The way materials work in nature is just one particular example, Libonati notes, "Every industry in the 3D printing value chain can see their work influenced by the bionic approach. This includes designers, materials specialists, and even part manufacturers." In the designer's work, the bionic approach will influence the creative part and help provide the best solutions inspired by nature. Materials specialists, on the other hand, need to understand how these solutions work and how to translate them into synthetic materials, keeping in mind that the latter are not living materials like biological materials.
As part of the research project, Flavia Libonati worked with researchers to gain a deeper understanding of the "structure-property" relationships of lattice-inspired materials. While the research started with a single unit cell inspired by the cubic Bravais lattice, the team used their knowledge from nature on the one hand, and a set of methods including 3D printing and mechanical testing on the other, to study the effects of different printing parameters and numerical modeling to design lightweight construction materials. A perfect illustration of "careful design from natural sources to create lightweight structures that withstand specific local loads and meet different functional needs".
By looking to the future, mimicking the characteristic microstructure of crystalline materials will allow to replicate the typical behavior of crystals on a larger scale, combining the hardening properties of natural structures with the advantages of lightweight architectural structures, resulting in new materials with multiple functions.
What we will conclude from Libonati's explanation is that "nature does everything from the nanoscale, in a hierarchically organized way, and we need to find a way to translate the process into fabrication while maintaining multi-scale precision. In this way, we will find better ways to develop new high-performance materials. bionic approaches within the field of 3D printing will lead to the creation of new materials and structures in the future.