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Shape is King

 "Shape matters more than material," is a saying that might just pick a few fights within academic circles. As a biologist it's clear to me that shape is king. Organisms use shape to define the performance of their world, they don't have research labs or spend billions of dollars to find exotic materials, they use what is readily available with ingenious results. A spider can turn a fly into a spider-web to catch more flies. Claus Mattheck has shown us how trees use curved shapes rather than ninety degree angles to decrease weight while increasing their toughness. Gecko's feet get their sticky behavior not due to the material of their feet, but because the 'hairs' can deform so well they interact through Van der Waals forces. These are just a few of the millions of examples where organisms use shape to obtain performance out of common materials. In nature, information and shape are cheap, materials are expensive.

Applying this knowledge of shape and performance is an obsession of anyone between the fields of biology and design. I often wonder at how much more we can do with a single material if we had the technology. That spider that can transform a single fly into proteins that make up a spider web has me wondering why our own industrial systems aren't so clever (and circular). A sea sponge that can make an intricate glass skeleton at the bottom of the ocean out of whatever floats by has me wondering why can't we do the same?  

This is why a research project called  'Metamaterial Mechanisms' from the Hasso Plattner Institute has captured my imagination. In the video below (I'm not sold on their choice of music) the team demonstrates their impressive technology. They have created a meta-material editor interface that allows users to create 'cells' that each enable a different types of performance based on its shape. They are making information and shape cheap, which allows us to use a single material for multiple purposes.

And this is a trend we see moving into manufacturing of every-day objects. Nike's FlyKnit technology is not just a way to create a shoe 'upper' that is lightweight, it is also made out of just one material. They are able to adjust the performance of the material by controlling the shape of the knit. 

Lastly, a recent announcement from Sappi has revealed they plan to begin selling the first commercial 'casting and release paper' with sharklet technologies. Casting and release paper is a way to add texture to woven and non woven textiles and plastics. It will enable fabrics, and synthetic leathers to actually have the ability to manage and interact with their microbial environments like never before. It might not be very long before you can get a jacket with sharklet technology.

These technologies share the same thing, they are using shape rather than material to obtain performance. Now all we need to do is look at the millions of organisms out there that have been doing this kind of thing for billions of years. Contact us to learn more.

Timothy McGeeComment