The diversity of the natural world inspires scientists to undertake new research and attempt to transfer the properties of natural organisms to synthetic structures. A team of scientists from the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering of the Polytechnic Institute and Virginia State University (Virginia Tech) have developed a method of additive production of flexible structures, inspired by marine mollusc armor.

As an example of the use of spatial printed structures, the authors give modern protective structures (e.g. knee pads), which are an alternative to currently used, rigid constructions. Their research, described in the scientific journal Nature Communications, is intended to help optimize protective clothing to increase its flexibility and minimize problems of blocking the range of motion. The combination of parametric computational modeling and multi-material 3D printing allowed the creation of scalable structures imitating reinforcements.

The subject of research was inspired by the construction of armor of chitons, i.e. a group of marine molluscs. As the team coordinator explains, unlike other mollusks, chitons have armor consisting of eight mineralized plates covering the top of his organs. Designing structures required a number of studies regarding, among others internal microstructure of the tiles, their chemical composition, mechanical properties and three-dimensional geometry.

As a result, they managed to develop a method for designing and 3D printing protective structures whose rigidity is predictable using the developed computational model – it is determined by, among others distance between segments. 3D printed armor protects against injuries, creating a barrier during impact, and at the same time provides great freedom of movement due to its flexibility. Numerous mechanical tests have assured scientists that their structures can be successfully used to manufacture e.g. knee pads.

The research involved scientists from prestigious universities such as MIT, Harvard Medical School, California State University, Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces and the Wyss Institute.

This is not the first time scientists have derived from the natural world. Earlier, researchers from the US and China managed to develop a coating of nanomaterials, inspired by cicadas. These insects have wings covered with a structure of nano-needles. These needles, smaller than bacteria, physically disrupt the entire cell membranes of microorganisms. Also scientists from GE Reaserch noticed that the method of creating cooling structures can be improved by modeling on human anatomy … By developing an original heat exchanger, specialists modeled on the structure of human lungs.


Magdalena Przychodniak
Editor-in-Chief of the 3D Printing Center. A biomedical engineer following the latest reports on bioprinting and 3D printing in modern medicine.

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