design | May 26, 2013

Don't Design Products—Design For Humanity: Neri Oxman On 3D Printing

Design speaker Neri Oxman predicts that all of us will have a 3D printer at our desks within the next decade. While these printers are already available—and have been hugely popular among early adopters—they have yet to make it into the mainstream. As Oxman tells The Globe and Mail, once the process is tweaked a bit, the 3D printer could have huge implications for the way we create the objects in our lives. "It democratizes the design process," Oxman said in an interview. "The fascination is the magic of imagining something—in three dimensions—and then having it in front of you. It’s really the magic of creation. It’s almost godly." How are Oxman and her team at the MIT Media Lab overcoming the current obstacles to bringing 3D printing to the masses? By strapping small magnets to silkworms' heads, of course.

Much of Oxman's work is inspired by nature. Silkworms, for example, are real-life 3D printers in action. By attaching a magnetometer to a silkworm, Oxman is able to study how the creature weaves its silk cocoon so that eventually the process can be replicated by humans. This is important, she says, as the printers we use today create 3D objects out of 2D bases by layering material on top of each other. In nature, however, the process is quite different. And, understanding this difference is key to eliminating the current limitations of 3D printing technology. She also notes that bringing this technology out of the lab and into the mainstream has broad implcations for the design methods of the future. "The importance for business is to realize that we’re not selling products, we’re selling processes," Oxman says. "We’re designing for humanity."

Forward-thinking, yet extremely accessible, Oxman expands on her mind-bending work in her keynotes. Her aesthetic encourages the fusion of nature and design, where objects seamlessly meld with the natural world around them. As Oxman shows us, the role of new technologies will be to advance the processes that already exist all around us. She teaches us how to harness the power of the natural world to help solve some of our most daunting problems.

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