Can Laboratory Research Be a Kind of Design?

Researchers in labs across the country are getting their hands dirty and prototyping ideas at every scale, from molecules to cities. Their findings will have a profound impact on our world.

Dr. Wim Noorduin seen in the Aizenberg Biomineralization and Biomimetics Lab at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, where he has developed a new form of 3D printing.

Portrait by Leonard Greco

There is no denying that we live in a resource-strapped world. In so many ways, the lives we lead, the products we use, and the spaces we live in are built upon inefficiencies—some in places we would never think to look.

Our digitally enriched lives suck rare-earth minerals out of the soil, while, elsewhere, lives are lost every day for lack of basic medical technologies. Constructing a building remains a wasteful process; a single concrete beam requires a surprisingly large amount of embodied energy. On the other hand, constructing one crystal of a common nanotech material—used in so many industries and manufacturing processes these days—makes even larger demands, totally disproportionate to the size of the task.

The mark of a true inventor, however, is the ability to see problems and opportunities simultaneously. Here, we showcase the work of six research labs that have dedicated themselves to responding to these challenges, transforming architecture and design for a healthier and more sustainable future.

Critical Materials Institute (CMI)
Robot House at SCI-Arc
Francis Bitonti Studio
Stanford Biodesign Collaboratory
The Aizenberg Biomineralization and Biomimetics Lab

Critical Materials Institute (CMI)
Location: The Ames Laboratory, Ames, Iowa
Founded: 2013
Number of Researchers: 318
Funding: United States Department of Energy

One of CMI’s success stories is a custom-modified 3D printer (above) that director Alex King says the lab uses for “what you might describe as off-label purposes.” The printer is capable of changing feeds mid-print, meaning that different materials can be layered on top of one another.

Images courtesy Critical Materials Institute/Ames Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy

We couldn’t have LEDs or electric motors without rare-earth elements—but China has a monopoly on these precious minerals. The race to find alternatives is on.

Objectives and Research Areas

To reduce the United States’ dependence on critical materials, especially rare-earth metals, which are essential to a wide range of technologies such as LEDs, electric motors, and some responsive glass coatings. CMI is working to diversify the supplies of these materials, to make their use and recycling more efficient, and to develop alternative materials and technology. It also seeks to predict what materials may become scarce in the future.

Models of Practice

CMI partners with labs in universities, private businesses, and other national laboratories.

Current Projects

Alex King, director: We’re starting to look at what critical materials are needed for LED lights, what the projected market will be 15 years out, and trying to ensure the supply or find a substitute for what’s needed. In a fluorescent lamp, you need maybe 10 or a dozen elements, and LEDs probably need 50 to 70. So there are a lot more chances for supply-chain shortfalls.

Our 3D printer is unusual in that it can print using different materials simultaneously. We use it for making small samples of materials of different compositions to test the effect of metallic alloys—the current application is developing permanent magnets. Permanent magnets are also threatened by shortages of materials like neodymium, iron, boron, and dysprosium. What’s important for architecture is that magnets are used in electric motors of elevators, HVAC systems, and motorized blinds.

Additive manufacturing using multi-feed printers (above) could one day help print magnets of almost any shape and size. But the battle to manage our reserves of other critical materials continues. “Rare earth elements jumped in price by a factor of about 25 in 2010—the price has settled back down, but they’re still in a fairly desperate shortage,” King says.

Future Research

AK: Lighting changes as we go from incandescent to fluorescent to LEd, so we have technologies such as responsive windows that change their reflectivity depending on temperature or light. These coatings sometimes involve critical materials—at 0.001 inch thickness, but across square miles of glass—and can have a big impact on the market. We are looking out for whether supplies of those materials will run out.

We also try to anticipate the penetration of LEDs. One of the things we’ve been learning from architects is that although, per lumen, LEDs use much less of the materials we’re concerned about, their smallness and ease of installation will lead to more lights and lighting options. The question is: are we going to have to cope with “lighting overkill”? My office is lit with a certain number of lumens per square foot, but in a home you might have twice that many.

Robot House
Location: SCI-Arc, Los Angeles
Founded: 2011
Number of Researchers: 2 staff, 1 research fellow, and 100 students use the space every year.
Funding: Staübli Robotics, the Fletcher Jones Foundation, and the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation

Rishabh Khurana, a graduate student, interacts with the Staübli RX-160 robot arm. Robot House was set up as two separate spaces—the simulation lab with a TX40 laboratory robot, and the robot room, where five other machines are set up in a way that allows their spheres of motion to intersect. This means they can, in effect, “collaborate” on projects.

Photography by Leonard Greco

In architecture, the use of robots is generally limited to fabrication. But a new generation is seeing them as tools for creativity and research.

Objectives and Research Areas

Peter Testa, cofounder: We want to explore the convergence of digital and physical workflows, to start to look at robotics beyond fabrication. Our approach to robotics at SCI-Arc from the beginning was very design-focused, and not simply to look at this as part of the shop, per se. So we created a new situation that’s floating between the design studio model and the workshop.

Devyn Weiser, cofounder: In a shop environment, typically, you go in with a very precise project in mind and you execute that project. In the Robot House, it’s a much more open-ended tool where you may stop in the middle of a project, change the tool that you designed with, switch out the material, get a different team member, update your files, then continue. It’s much more customized and tailored to the way that someone would work—it’s more interactive with the workflow.

Models of Practice

DW: Ongoing projects get fed information or requirements through the studios and seminars. Students might hack into some of their software or customize something for a particular class. There’s a lot of code getting written in Maya animation software and Grasshopper to fit each project, there’s no one single big project. It’s really team by team, course by course.

PT: We’re able to glean from unexpected areas, like video games and other things that students pull into the motion control environment of the lab.

The double-height, 1,000-square-foot Robot House was augmented this spring by the Magic Box —a 4,000-square-foot digital fabrication facility. With triple the number of laser cutters, 3D scanners, and ABS plastic printers the students previously had access to, the Magic Box acts as a sort of bridge between the robotic facility and the analog workshop.

Current Capabilities and Projects

DW: There were initially two rooms: the simulation space and the actual robot cell. The first one has become a multi-purpose staging area with Makerbots and several computers. both spaces are outfitted with pretty high-end projectors, so classes happen in the lab as well. The spaces have kind of merged into one large, fluid organization. We are primarily on the Maya platform, an animation tool that ties right into the way that the robots move. Early on, we built a virtual model of the lab using Maya. That gets exported out to the native robot language so you have a digital modeling environment that is simulating what the robot’s motion paths are in real-time.

PT: In a lot of ways, a robot arm is a universal machine. We can use cameras, scanners, some tools hacked onto the robot, and others off-the-shelf— for visualization and scanning and various modes of feedback and recording. We’ve also used slow-motion and high-speed videography to look at material processes in slow motion and start to understand things that are invisible, things that happen inside of materials. This ties back into architecture in terms of a long history of techniques of representation. The motion-space of the robots is spherical, so this is non-Cartesian space, and new kinds of geometry can be investigated.

A composite image of the movement of the robots, which can move along six axes. Most fabrication tools work on two axes of motion, or build in layers. “If students build a 3D print, they know that it’s going to get recontoured into a series of horizontal layers and that’s just the nature of an .ftl file,” Weiser says. “If they work in their Robot House and they’re using, this semester, custom-built extruders, they’re actually extruding in six axes rather than just building in layers.”

Future Research

PT: Students build many of the end-arm tools with 3D printing, laser cutting, and the traditional forms of fabrication. We’ve also started to work on interfaces that can synchronize, not just robots, but multiple machines working together. End-arm tools can be triggered in Maya so they’re synchronized to the motion of the robots. The permanent staff are working on building new interfaces for students, but they have a much larger and more ambitious project for a “streaming interface.” This would allow for a wider range of interaction between designers and robots, such as gestural controls.

Francis Bitonti Studio
Location: Brooklyn, New York
Founded: 2007
Number of Researchers: 3
Funding: Private

In 2013, Francis Bitonti shot to fame with a fully 3D-printed dress for the burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese. The dress was designed by Michael Schmidt, and was then modeled on the computer by Bitonti’s studio. The 17 pieces of the dress were then printed in nylon by Shapeways (above), dyed in black, and studded with 13,000 Swarovski crystals. The project ultimately led to the launch of the studio’s luxury goods collection earlier this year.

Photos courtesy Francis Bitonti Studio

It’s time to push the limits of 3D printing. Could we print with biological materials? Could we print flexible surfaces that drape like cotton?

Objectives and Research Areas

The studio researches new rapid-prototyping technologies, including multi-material or multi-part designs, and printing in patterns and weaves. Bitonti often works with luxury and fashion brands.

Models of Practice

Francis Bitonti, founder: We wouldn’t have had access to any of this technology were it not for collaborations with Adobe, Shapeways, Makerbot, and others. I think it’s a lot like the early days of computers—you had to pay a lot of money to get time on a computer. It’s the same thing with 3D printing. All of those collaborations have helped us learn, and have put the industry where it is now. and I hope it keeps up. A lot of people have tried to give us an academically funded lab, but I don’t like the bureaucracy of institutions. We use our clients for our research. We develop a lot of things internally—the R&D is our product. We have design fees for all of our commissions because we’ve done the research.

The basis for Bitonti’s 3D-printed footwear, unveiled last September, is an algorithm called Game of Life, developed by the mathematician John Conway. The new Adobe Photoshop uses the algorithm to generate the form of the shoes, which are then produced on a Stratasys 3D printer that can blend different colors in each layer. “I’ve been going around saying that the industry is in a lot of trouble,” Bitonti says of the world of luxury goods. “It’s basically because data is instantly reproducible. We’re looking at a future where if a material doesn’t become data, it’s colliding with the ground rules of an information economy.”

Current Projects

The studio’s new skins workshops, which focus on complex geometry and additive manufacturing, have been running for three years now, recently in London and New York City.

FB: When the workshops started we were working very closely with fashion designers and educating them on how to work with 3D modeling and materials. What the workshops have become, for us, is a way to explore ideas more deeply than we get time to do in the studio. The last few have been focused on textiles and flexibility in 3D prints—using different types of mechanical connections, such as chainmail, to get fabric-like behavior from the material. We’ve also been trying to create woven patterns or things that might look or feel closer to a knit or a weave using FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) technology. I’ve been writing some splicing algorithms for that.

We’ve also done some work with Stratasys, where we’re looking into creating gradients by shifting from one material to another. That’s been the core of the materials research that’s been going on for the past year.

Future Research

FB: We’ve been looking into the possibility of 3D printing in mycelium and other kinds of biological materials. It’s very early research. The big barrier for me is getting the materials into the form they have to be, like a fine powder or paste. At the architectural scale, one of the problems that I see with what people are doing is: Yes, it’s really nice to print an entire house, but the tendency is to centralize, have one facility print all the components, and I don’t think that’s right. When things are getting to that scale, I think distribution is the answer.

Stanford Biodesign Collaboratory
Location: The James H. Clark Center, Stanford, California
Founded: 2003
Number of Researchers: 1 part-time supervisor, 2 part-time graduate students,
and approximately 100 faculty, fellows, and students each year
Funding: The Stanford University Biodesign program as well as other supporters and sponsors

“Over the last five years, a variety of additional maker spaces have sprung up across campus,” Venook says. “The Collab has some unique capabilities and materials.” Researchers can use testing devices specific to biomedical technology.

Courtesy Stanford Biodesign

Alumni of the Stanford Biodesign program have gone on to form 36 companies at the cutting edge of biomedical technology. Their ideas first took shape in the Collaboratory.

Objectives and Research Areas

Ross Venook, supervisor: The Biodesign program’s primary mission is education, but the students and the fellows have broader ambitions. They frequently take their work out of the lab and try to get it to patients. That is one strength of the Biodesign program—its “translational aspect” of taking an idea from concept to clinic. Part of the initiative of the Clark Center was to build a space that was right next door to the hospital and yet would have the engineering capabilities to take things from one place to the other.

Models of Practice

RV: One thing that’s fairly unique is that the materials in the Collaboratory are all freely available. Users of the space don’t pay any lab fees because the program wants to support their innovative ideas and their prototypes. People in the lab are working on ideas around which they’re planning to form companies. All of the IP generated in the Collab is owned by Stanford, yet everyone also knows that Stanford is incredibly supportive of inventors taking ideas beyond its walls.

The range of tabletop prototyping tools “are freely available,”Venook adds. “Users of the space don’t pay any lab fee.” This can be invaluable for inventors like Dr. Uday N. Kumar, who prototyped the Zio Patch device for his company, iRhythm Technologies.

Current Capabilities

The Biodesign program, by its nature, brings together physicians, engineers, and folks with business backgrounds. Part of the idea of the Collab is accessibility for non-expert machinists to most of the equipment they would need to do early-stage prototypes. The emphasis is on making it right now. The Collab is unique in that we’ve got boxes full of derelict medical tools—all manner of surgical staplers, catheter guide wires, and other sorts of tools that are used in surgeries. When you walk in there, in addition to having facilities, you also have lots of examples of similar medical technologies as well as technologies that you might be interfacing with.

Future Research

We’re trying to figure out how to support the building of electronic gadgets using Arduino or other open-source electronics platforms in collaboration with smartphone apps. That’s the direction we’re investigating but haven’t gone yet. It’s an interesting question: With an interventional cardiology garage that has grown over the years to include a vast array of equipment, how do we add manufacturing technology and software to that?

Location: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Founded: 2012
Number of Researches: 2 permanent researchers: Anton Garcia-Abril, principal investigator and director, and Débora Mesa, research director and scientist
Funding: Initial seed money came from MIT in 2013. Subsequent funding has come from industry, foundations, and other institutions on a project-by-project basis.

One of the first prototypes built in the POPLab is the Cubic Igloo—a structure that measures just five meters along each edge, but is, in fact, a fully equipped house. The careful assemblage is made of foam, so it is light enough to be moved with a small electric car.

Images courtesy POPLab

Because it is still mired in cumbersome conventional materials, prefabrication has yet to reach its full potential. But what if we could replace concrete with foam?

Objectives and Research Areas

Débora Mesa: The lab started with two scales—small-scale and urban—that deal with prefabrication in broad terms. It’s not just related to housing or manufacturing, but to using the best aspects of prefabrication: optimized construction processes, quality control, and adaptation to context, etc.

Current Capabilities and Projects

DM: In the lab, we’ve built a 50-foot-long beam of foam, pre-stressed with steel, to test its structural performance. It’s emulating the structure of concrete beams—using steel as the material that supports the tension. Using foam reduces the weight of the structural elements considerably.

Another prototype called the Cubic Igloo, also built with the help of students, was a fully equipped house we could move with small wheels and a smart car. So that’s what we’re trying to explore: the structural possibilities of foam, how it can reduce the weight of architecture. But also its spatial qualities, its thermal properties, and the way it can be appropriated and customized by different people.

We always try to keep our connection with the architecture school. We feel that the potential of MIT lies not in the academics or independent research in themselves, but in the possibility of mixing the two.

In 2011, a group of prominent Japanese architects asked their peers around the world to respond to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan with homes for disaster-stricken areas. García-Abril and Mesa developed the Hai-Tech House, an extremely lightweight structure that could be constructed by a small group of people working together.

For example, the studio we are now doing in Miami connects the syllabus to the agenda of the lab. This way, the students are able to profit from POPLab’s research and POPLab is able to expose its research to critical opinions and feedback from the students. The students are not tied to using foam, but if they do want to use our research, they can. It’s a very synergistic relationship.

The Miami studio is linked to the research we’re doing on an urban scale; it weaves architecture and infrastructure. We’re looking at the coastline to study how public infrastructure can be improved, how water can be a part of public life, and how we can enhance public transportation systems.

Future Research

Regarding the foam structures, for example, we think there’s a great potential to impact industry in many places. From developing countries, where many people need to build their houses with little resources, to housing in the United States, we think that foam brings many opportunities. It’s lightweight, and it’s easy to be cement into constructions. Regarding urban research, we are developing ways to reuse, repurpose, or recycle obsolete and misused infrastructure in the city. Our superstructures try to hybridize architecture and infrastructure.

Dr. Wim Noorduin, the Aizenberg Biomineralization and Biomimetics Lab
Location: Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Founded: 2010
Number of Researchers: 1
Funding: The Netherlands Science Organization and a VENI Grant

Wim Noorduin has turned to 3D printing for the next stage of his research. Digital fabrication is too imprecise to use by itself at the micro scale, but it could provide solutions when combined with the self-assembly methods. “There are still practical problems to solve,” Noorduin says. “I really want to have precise control, for instance, over the curvature of a flower or the arrangement of the material inside a structure. These are now things that I’m fine-tuning.”

Photography by Leonardo Greco

Many industries now use nanotech materials, but producing them is a heavily controlled process. Now, new research shows that these materials could self-assemble.

Objectives and Research Areas

Wim Noorduin: My field of work focuses on biomineralization processes—that is, how structures form in nature, and how amazing shapes, such as in sea shells, can arise. The key thing we explore in this research is whether we can use a dynamic environment to sculpt a form while it is growing. Instead of just dialing in all the parameters in the beginning, you can use chemical cues to shape the material while it grows. Once we were able to do that we started to push the limits of what kinds of shapes can be made: Can I grow a vase on top of a spiral? Can I grow something inside the vase?

Models of Practice

Noorduin collaborates with experts in optics, 3D printing, and mathematics. He is also collaborating with the Imperial College London on making 3D reconstructions of the microstructures.

Current Capabilities and Projects

WN: Crystals, such as the ones I’m growing, have traditionally been used a lot for making optical materials, both in artificial systems and in nature. There is, for instance, a sea star that has eyes made out of calcium carbonate, a mineral.

Micro-sized structures—used in optical applications or as chemical catalysts—are normally made with a top-down fabrication technique. It basically means you set all of the parameters and you really need to have control over everything, to place every material at exactly the right location.

Noorduin’s beautiful flower-shaped microstructures (above) start out as a solution of barium carbonate and sodium metasilicate in a glass beaker filled with water.

We’re exploring both the substrate [a seed for crystal growth] from where the materials are growing, by precisely placing the seeds, which are the starting point of a growing structure. But we’re also looking into how we can change the chemical cues as it grows.

This approach allows the materials to self-assemble. You set a few initial parameters and then the system evolves by itself. That’s a completely different approach. No two look exactly the same—every structure is unique—but on the other hand you can get levels of complexity that are impossible to reach with the traditional techniques.

The samples where you grow these structures, these landscapes, they may be the size of a postage stamp, and when you look at them the only thing you see is a very thin white line. When you zoom in, it contains this whole world where you can get completely lost.

A small optical microscope is sufficient to just look at the structures and examine their growth. To print out images, Noorduin uses a high-resolution electron microscope.

Future Research

So far I hardly control the initial settings of the system. But you could also have much more control over the process. You could take a substrate that’s made using standard micro-fabrication techniques, and you’re able to use this information to subsequently control the self-assembly process. Then you can have much more control. Every structure looks more alike. You can really start to think of techniques where you can take advantage of both the top-down approach and the bottom-up approach.

This is actually where we are looking into 3D printing: We basically use a microscopic pattern along with a 3D printer. They would be used in combination to make crystals of different shapes.

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