How MIT Is Hacking Thousands Of Worms To Print Buildings

Leveraging a biological swarm of silkworms, MIT has constructed a beautiful pavilion that questions the very nature of 3-D printing.

We think of 3-D printers as desktop machines, stagnant workhorses used to generate piecemeal shapes for humans to relocate in the real world. But a new, stunning piece of architecture by the Mediated Matter Group at MIT Media Lab brings all of those assumptions into question.


It’s called the Silk Pavilion, and while a robotic arm laid the basic hexagonal framework, 6,500 live silkworms extruded the pavilion’s hauntingly gorgeous shell. It’s what researchers call a “biological swarm approach to 3-D printing,” or what may be the most epicly named piece of fabrication technology since the blowtorch. You see, while silkworms have been used for millennia to give us our beloved silk, that process has always required a level of harvesting–boiling cocoons to generate silk filament. MIT has discovered how to manipulate the worms to shape silk for us natively.

“The silkworm embodies everything an additive fabrication system currently lacks,” Mediated Matter’s director Neri Oxman tells Co.Design. “It’s small in size and mobile in movement, it produces natural material of variable mechanical properties, and it spins a non-homogeneous, non-woven textile-like structure.”

Why would you want the printing to be non-homogeneous? That’s a good question. Imagine if you were constructing a building, but you wanted to leave room for a window. Or imagine you were sewing a shirt, but you wanted the elbows to be more flexible than cuffs. By exploiting biological hacks–tweaking light, heat, and basic geometric scaffolding–researchers can guide the worms to create the intricate and varied patterns necessary to complex creations.

The most immediate implications may be in the potential for a “templated swarm” approach, which I picture as a factory producing a line of clothing just by releasing silkworms across a series of worm-hacking mannequins. But the silkworms’ greater potential may be in sheer scale.

“Imagine the future of additive manufacturing outside of the printer’s gantry, imagine a swarm of small-scale printing units collaborating to ‘print’ something bigger than themselves,” Oxman writes. “Future research aims to unite 3-D Printing with Artificial Intelligence to generate printing swarms operating in architectural scales depositing structural materials.”

In other words, a biological swarm can break outside the bounds of even the largest 3-D printer, building structures in their actual environments. Now combine that idea with another discovery the researchers made when producing the pavilion: The 6,500 silkworms were still viable after finishing construction. They actually pupate into moths (on the structure), and those moths can produce 1.5 million eggs. That’s enough to theoretically supply what the worms need to create another 250 pavilions.

In this sense, the silkworm fabrication process becomes self-propagating, like a 3-D printer that can print itself with all the virulence of an insect colony. And while that may sound a little horrifying, do try to keep in mind: At least MIT isn’t working with spiders.


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.