May 15, 2015 | By Simon

Of all of the things in the natural world, spider webs have consistently been one of the more fascinating biological structures known to man.  Between its high-strength properties (ounce for ounce it’s stronger than steel) to its complex mathematical patterns, the spider’s web is nothing short of one of nature’s most impressive structures.  

Now, by using a combination of computational modeling and mechanical analysis, a team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a way of using 3D printing to create synthetic spider webs as method o better understanding them.  

In a recent paper written by Professor Marku Buehler - head of MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) - along with CEE research scientist Zhao Qin, Harvard University professor Jennifer Lewis and former Harvard postdoc Brett Compton, the team of researchers revealed their findings on the “structural optimization of 3D-printed synthetic spider webs for high strength”.

“This is the first methodical exploration of its kind,” said ProfessorBuehler.

“We are looking to expand our knowledge of the function of natural webs in a systematic and repeatable manner.”

Using an experimental setup, the team used metal structures to 3D print the synthetic webs and directly integrate their data into the models - essentially merging the physical with the computational.  

The 3D printed models, according to Harvard University Professor Jennifer Lewis, provide ample opportunities to further study the effects of web structure design and the relationships between strength and tolerance for damage - something that would be near-impossible to study with the use of natural spider webs.  

“Spider silk is an impressive and fascinating material,” said Lewis.

“But before now, the role of the web architecture had not yet been fully explored.” To investigate the geometric aspects of spider webs through the use of a similar material to silk that can be 3D-printed with uniform mechanical properties was Lewis’ mission.

Among other discoveries made by the team, the study found that there is a significant relationship between the spider web structure, loading points and failure mechanisms; when material distribution is shifted throughout a web, a spider is able to better optimize the strength of the web for its anticipated prey.  According to Buehler, it is finding like this that the team are hoping to use to inspire the design of real world, damage-resistant materials of lower density.

Additionally, the experiments revealed that spider webs consisting of a uniform thread diameter is better-suited to handle a force that’s applied at a single point - such as a fly or a bee hitting the web.  However, when a web is built with nonuniform thread, it is more resilient against widespread pressure such as a constant barrage of rain drops or heavy winds.        

“This work is an excellent demonstration of how we can exploit designs in nature in the development of novel materials and structures.” added Sandra Shefelbine, an associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Northeastern University.

Now that the team has established a viable way of testing the spider web structures thanks to their 3D printing methods, their next step is to further examine the dynamic aspects of various web designs using controlled impact and vibration experiments that simulate forces in nature.  

“Biological materials and structures are the new frontier of engineering,” added Marc Meyers, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of California at San Diego.

“This most recent significant contribution by Markus Buehler and colleagues goes beyond the first stage, which is to understand nature, and make significant inroads into creating a bioinspired structure.”

As we move towards a future of generative design with nature-inspired elements, it is experiments like these that will ultimately help pave the way for the next generation of design and engineering.  



Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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Don wrote at 4/15/2016 6:39:27 AM:

A good metal shop will have a plasma cutter run on the computer if you can talk him out of removing his plasma cutting tip and install your synthetic web shooting tip and make a program for your web you will need to be self-contained with your equipment and make it to fit his plasma cutting machine

Don wrote at 4/15/2016 6:27:25 AM:

I took a closer look at your web sight oscillating tip with the program

Don mccallister wrote at 4/15/2016 6:23:04 AM:

Kind of rude take a paint gun restructure the tip . Perhaps an airless paint sprayer or make you a tip

Don mcCallister wrote at 4/14/2016 11:33:20 AM:

I believe structural integrity can be found in Spyro graph design similar to snowflakes plastic composites mixed into materials can add great strength I am sure there are many other stronger composites to make into a spirograph designs I believe with some imagination this can be useful in many ways

V LaRosa wrote at 2/3/2016 12:57:24 AM:

My son, a future engineer for sure, is desperately trying to figure out how to make synthetic webs. His goal right now is to make a real life web shooter. Could you give us some direction? Thanks!!

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