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Glue-fabbing

C. Sven Johnson is an independent designer who blogs primarily about the fusion of product design, virtual design and rapid-manufacturing technologies on the reBang weblog.

mjm_P1010048.jpg When I first posted about Vik Olliver's homemade "glue gun fabber", it received plenty of interest ... and a fair share of ridicule. After all who wants something made of glue? We're not children. Indeed. It's hard to imagine the devices consumers covet - cell phones, laptops, aso - not being largely contained within an aesthetically-attractive, entirely synthetic plastic shell. Not enough to have a device that works, consumers want to look good using it. In our appearance-driven culture, this should come as no surprise. The result is that when we talk of recycling (as in Jer Faludi's recent WC post), it's often with an eye toward disassembling one of these complex vanity devices; most of which are composed of an assortment of synthetic parts which may never be recycled.

As we move toward a world increasingly filled with things created in whole or in part through rapid-manufacturing processes, there's never been a better time to rethink materials beyond just the need for biodegradeable plastics.

Glue? Why not?

Those familiar with typical rapid-prototyping systems are aware of the ever-increasing assortment of synthetic materials; knock-offs of polypropylene and blends of ABS. Increasingly clarified resins; blends that are no longer brittle and which crack under the slightest pressure. The apparent goal of these material advancements, however, isn't to develop new material options for manufacturing, but rather to more accurately simulate existing materials; to better emulate all the synthetic materials we're mostly dumping into landfills. That's where the money and demand are, and that's where the focus has been.

If one looks to the fringes, however, one finds people creating devices which print shapes in ... chocolate. You can read stories about chefs like Homaru Cantu using repurposed inkjet printers to fab edible menus. Even the RepRap crew gave early consideration and conducted tests using sucrose.

The mainstream media increasingly reports on a future that includes "bioprinting" organs using materials harvested from the recipient's body. And one of the more interesting rapid-manufacturing advancements has been the further development of Selective Laser Melting (SLM) of metals. Metal. One of the oldest materials used by humans.

So what about glue?

Like metal, it's one of humankind's oldest material resources, dating back thousands of years. From sticky rice mortar used by inventive Chinese builders to ancient Egyptians who used a variety of animal-based glues, natural glues have been an important part of human technological advancement. And it just so happens that one of the stories making the rounds now concerns the incredible, natural glue created in nature by the bacterium Caulobacter crescentus. A superior superglue, according to researcher Yves Brun, apparently created from a combination of sugars and proteins. Most of you have probably read this from the Indiana University press release:

C. crescentus affixes itself to rocks and the insides of water pipes via a long, slender stalk. At the end of the stalk is a holdfast dotted with polysaccharides (chains of sugar molecules). The scientists show in the PNAS paper that these sugars are the source of C. crescentus's tenacity. It is presumed these sugars are attached to holdfast proteins, but this has not yet been confirmed. One thing is certain -- the polysaccharides are sticky.

Glue.

Imagine rapid-manufacturing machines that create a similar kind of glue on demand and use it to cement filler in progressive layers, much like how nature's own builders, termites, erect their amazingly resilient nests. Add to this what scientists are learning about one of nature's strongest materials, nacre, and we have the potential to radically redefine our material culture.

Imagine a cell phone as beautiful and strong as a sea shell. It's within reach. We just have to embrace possibilities and perhaps rediscover the things we thought we'd outgrown. Like glue.

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