Nov 13, 2015 | By Alec

While experts will tell you that a more basic method of additive manufacturing has been around for decades, the real source of 3D printing can be found in nature. As biologist and artist Jennifer Berry reminds us with a recent project, bees have been 3D printing honeycomb structures with their own bodies for thousands of years. To emphasize this fascinating realization, she has harnessed the bees’ manufacturing power in her B-code 3D printer project.

Berry is a biologist who has specialized in bees, honey, and all the wonderful things you can do with them. Also a prolific artist, worked on the B-code project while in residence at the Autodesk Pier 9 Workshops in San Francisco. Previously using honey bees and other aspects of nature, she decided to highlight the manufacturing function of bees themselves with this latest project. ‘Bees are the world's first 3D printers. They work in a material made from their own bodies, formed at body temperature, with a material that is safe to eat and is biodegradable and even recyclable,’ she says. Sounds like a pretty good 3D printing tool, doesn’t it?

As she explains, inspiration came from being introduced to the early additive manufacturing concepts about ten years ago. ‘At the time we called it "growing" a part, which is a great way to convey this concept, so similar to how nature builds its things. It was the idea of growing parts that became the basis for my development towards a biological 3D printer,’ she says. And that is essentially what she’s created. ‘B-code is revolutionary in that prints are made using a biopolymer that is fully edible, biodegradable, and completely sustainable, without dependency on petroleum, emitting no carbon, and producing no waste,’ she explains.

But this doesn’t mean solar panels or anything else, simply bees – who can indeed be seen as little flying 3D printers. In this case, the nozzle is the bee’s mouth, which produces long threads that can be deposited on top of each other and cured by the air to form honeycombs, and even complete hives. The ‘filament’, in this case, is also a remarkable (and edible) building material. ‘The chemical formula of beeswax is C15H31COOC30H6I, and contains over 300 individual chemical components, including palmitate, palmitoleate, oleate esters and of long chain aliphatic alcohols. This biopolymer is similar to other early thermoplastics used by humans before more toxic and persistent petroleum-based plastics came into use,’ Berry explains.

But there are even similarities to be found between a bee’s instinct and the computers we use. ‘Bees work using a simple logic similar to codes used in modern computing, including binary code, if-then statements, and go to statements. I call this set of instructions B-code,’ she says. ‘The set of feedback signals that prompt bees to begin building comb include triggers such as a nectar flow, when the amount of available nectar exceeds the demand of the population [ and more]. The first signal of a nectar flow is crowding, a binary yes or no output.’ The dimensions of the bees themselves determine the depth and width of the comb they form, something which she calls ‘Bee-space’, and they are capable of repairing broken hives or rebuilding abandoned ones.

So how do bees 3D print? Well, they constantly make hexagons with a 2 mm deviation, which eventually deform into circles. Berry explains that this is the result of millions of years of evolution, with the bees now instinctively making structures that feature a high tensile strength and a minimal surface area. As honeycombs can support up to fifty times their own weight, that is something we in the making industry can definitely learn from. The combs themselves are ‘3D printed’ by young bees, who have wax glands near their mouths. Consuming copious amounts of honey, they extrude long chain fatty acids from these glands at a temperature between 91 and 97 degrees, which the bee stamps into small scales of about 1 by 3 mm.

In short, all the similarities seem to be there – the bees take a binary approach to extruding pre-determined shapes with a biological, but powerful filament. It’s a fascinating deconstruction of 3D printing technology and it’s always good to know what the humblest beginnings of anything is, but Berry takes things even further. Taking her B-code principles, she has even built a ‘3D printer’ of sorts, using bees as the extruders and filament manufacturers in one. This was done not just to document the 3D printing process, but also manipulate it into new shapes – a true Bee 3D printer.

As you can see in the images above and below, this 3D printer takes the shape on an enclosed shell that shelters and confines the bees and provides them with a positive building environment. ‘The clear shell is made of petg, a somewhat slippery material that will discourage the bees to attach comb directly to the shell,’ she explains.

This shell, essentially, is the 3D printer but one with some special features. ‘A hive must maintain an equilibrium inside, roughly 92 degrees Fahrenheit, with a humidity between 50-60%. I've taken care of the temperature by having the shell in a temperature-controlled room, but as you can imagine, a plastic shell does not breath. To compensate for this I've vented the shell in several places with screened openings,’ Berry explains. A bunch of red LEDs – which bees are unable to see – enables proper documentation of the 3D printer at work.

Filled with a bunch of premade honeycombs, Berry is able to manipulate the work of the bees, and motivates the bees to build into a certain pattern. Though the bees can come and go during production, once the print is completed the only way out is a one-way door, enabling them to leave but not return. ‘Its a slow game of attrition, and as bees become hungry, they leave and can't come back. This ensures and honey and brood are completely removed before the print is harvested,’ she says. ‘Once a sufficient number of bees have been evacuated from the 3D print, the print bed will be opened and the remaining bees will be manually reunited with their queen and brood in the new hive.’

While the forms of the objects created with this bee 3D printer are necessarily limited, it is nonetheless a truly fascinating look into the way nature manufacturers. And the similarities between these products of millennia of evolution and our own desktop 3D printers are undeniable.



Posted in 3D Printer



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JC wrote at 11/13/2015 2:39:20 PM:

Any other uninspired ideas?

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