Masoud Akbarzadeh, an assistant professor of architecture at Weitzman who directs the Polyhedral Structures Lab, is on a team of Penn researchers who have been tapped to drive “the Future of Manufacturing” with innovative, interdisciplinary projects supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The grants come from the agency’s $40 million program to develop new technologies, processes and skills in the fields of “biomanufacturing, cyber-manufacturing and eco-manufacturing.”
Akbarzadeh’s team will focus on “self-morphing building blocks,” or cell-sized modules that can be assembled into human-scale structures, maximizing strength and minimizing weight in the same way evolution has optimized biological organisms.
“Our investment provides industry with manufacturing tools that currently live only in the laboratory, or the imagination,” says NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “Through the convergence of such fields as robotics, artificial intelligence, biotechnology and materials research, future manufacturing will create revolutionary products with unprecedented capabilities, produced sustainably in facilities across the country by a diverse, newly trained workforce.”
Humans have been designing better construction materials for millennia, but for many applications, even the most advanced technologies can’t compete with evolution.
The ideal mix of qualities found in biological materials, such wood, chitin and bone, originate at the cellular level. They are all composed of nanoscale building blocks that have been optimized by natural selection over millions of years, with geometries that provide maximum support at minimum weight.
Inspired by these biological materials, Akbarzadeh’s team—which includes Shu Yang, professor in Penn Engineering’s Departments of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE), and Liang Feng, associate professor in MSE and Electrical and Systems Engineering (ESE)—will develop artificial structures that are load-bearing, lightwave-guiding, sound insulating, and self-morphing from the nano- to macroscales.
The 5-year, $4.6 million grant will see them collaborate with researchers at Princeton University, Rowan University and Rutgers University Camden.
Using geometry-based structural optimization techniques, Akbarzadeh has already created several human-scale structures out of concrete and glass that mimic evolution's approach toward minimizing the use of material while maximizing its performance. Using Yang and Feng’s expertise in nanoscale and responsive materials together with the team’s novel scalable manufacturing techniques, the group will produce similar structures from bio-based and bioinspired composite materials such that they can be eco-friendly, reused, repurposed and upcycled on demand.
Through a modular design, the researchers will be able to combine these building blocks to produce meter-scale components and structures with unique geometries and advanced performance. The group’s proposal is organized under the program’s “eco-manufacturing” initiative, as these large-scale systems will be able to morph into final design configurations with less waste and with materials that have less impact on the environment.
The research will not only push the envelope to achieve additional performative functions with reduced materials and cost, but also train an inclusive and responsible future Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) workforce.
The other Penn team funded through the NSF’s Future of Manufacturing initiative will investigate “bioinspired distributed agents,” or tiny robots that work like ants to collectively complete a task. A swarm of such robots, each following its own simple set of rules, could assemble complex, intricate structures, much like a 3D printer would.