Evolutionary Structures in Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing

The structures of living things and inanimate objects occurring in nature have been studied and emulated for industrial uses, and there is evidence for this in many forms of technology. For example, levers have naturally occurred in the bodies of living things for millions of years, long before they were ever constructed for tools. The human body uses a series of levers that allow us to move upright while opposing the forces of gravity throughout our skeletal systems. When you pick up an object through flexion of your arm, your elbow acts as a fulcrum in which the force being applied is resisting the weight of your forearm, wrist, and hand.

Patterns and structures that exist in inanimate matter and living things are mimicked in industry to create materials and design products. Additionally, processes like additive manufacturing can replicate rare, evolutionarily acquired structural aspects of the animal kingdom, such as the unique structure of seahorse tails. 3D printing is ideal for this, providing a means in which different models can be produced inexpensively, while allowing for rapid prototyping of different printed structures.

While industry production of these structures can benefit the growth of knowledge through educational purposes, the makeup of industrial materials can and has gained much from the visible structure of objects in nature. Take, for example, a honeycomb, a complex structure composed primarily of hexagonal cells that contain lines so equal and precise that they fit together perfectly. This shape gives the beehives adequate space to live and store honey, and it prevents complete destruction of the hive if it were to fall from its common location suspended in a tree. The hexagonal honeycomb pattern, due to its high tenacity, is ideal for lightweight cores for use in the aerospace industry. Components for this, as with others used for aircrafts, are inexpensively made lightweight through additive manufacturing.

Bee dips into honeycomb, a shape used for lightweight cores in aerospace 3D printing.
All sides of the hexagons in a honeycomb are approximately equal.

As evolutionarily acquired structural components in living things become uncovered and understood, they can potentially be manufactured for different purposes. The compositions of the bodies of living things have been formed throughout billions of years of evolution. Taking advantage of the structural processes performed by natural selection can ensure the integrity of manufactured materials and products.

A recent investigation into the structure of a seahorse’s unique square-shaped tail revealed that the square, as opposed to the common round, shape makes the tail more resilient to a predator’s bite, but more importantly allows it to grab onto items.

The square-shaped tail of the seahorse lets it latch onto objects while remaining partially-mobile.

Researchers performed additive manufacturing of seahorse tails to be able to test the durability of the square-shaped tail without bringing any harm to the animals. In their deliberate destruction of these reconstructed appendages, they uncovered that these tails, due to their build of small boxes separated by joints to form an overall square shape, can take a greater impact from a mechanical load, thus making them incredibly durable.

This testing also revealed that the box-based makeup of the tails provides easy twisting and bending, granting advanced gripping capabilities. For the seahorse, this ability lets it clasp onto seaweed on the ocean floor while still moving relatively freely in a fixed location. For the purpose of human industry, this design could allow more-mobile robotics technology with enhanced grasping capabilities, and even medical devices that move through the human body more freely.

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