Humans have been breeding silkworms for fabric for over 5,000 years, but Media Lab professor Neri Oxman married their innate productivity with computerized efficiency. Oxman leads the Media Lab’s Mediated Matter group — a research team that experiments with advanced design and fabrication technologies with an eye towards biomimicry. Her diverse body of work includes the development of micro-sized robots that can build concrete structures as well as 3-D printed, high-fashion garments inspired by biological structures.
Oxman and her team — Markus Kayser, Jared Laucks, Carlos David Gonzales Uribe, and Jorge Duro-Royo — call the hybrid fabrication method CNSilk. The project started with experiments to see if the spinning patterns of the silkworms could be controlled by altering the environment they operated in. It turns out they could, and this finding allowed Oxman to develop a creepy-crawly CAD program to control their output. An aluminum scaffold was constructed and a CNC robot was used to string a lattice of silk starter threads across it in patterns that would provide a base for the worms to operate. The aluminum and string frame was hung in an atrium at MIT and thousands of silkworms were released on it. They swarmed over the structure’s surface and spun silk threads that ultimately created a dome that was equal parts Buckminster Fuller and Charlotte’s Web.