It's still early days when it comes to manufacturing. Archaeological digs have revealed that technology behind the first stone tools advanced at a glacial pace: Approximately 33,000 generations passed between early hominids' first attempts about 2.6 million years ago and the next wave of innovation almost a million years later. While the pace has quickened exponentially, our fundamental techniques remain remarkably similar in concept: creating objects by reworking raw materials with hands or tools.
Biology, rather than machining, is now emerging as a leading contender to assemble our future environment. Medicine and biofuels have tapped biology for mass production, but more robust materials for everyday life—roofs, beams, floor panels, car seats—are still the domain of factories. Now the ability to redirect and engineer biological processes and then capture this understanding in computational models, means that cells could soon become our factories, says David Benjamin, a computational architect and principal of the The Living, a New York architectural practice, as well as a professor at Columbia University.
The concept is evolving from top-down engineering of biological parts to more of a dance between computer, biological, and human intelligence. Humans set the goals—the shape and properties of a desired material—and computers translate these properties into biological models. Then the patterned "sheets" of bacterial cells are grown in the lab, determining the final design based on the predilections encoded in DNA.
This "human-cell collaboration" is at the heart of Benjamin's architectural practice, which envisions a future built largely as a joint endeavor between humans and cells—mostly bacteria. "[Once we] start modeling this in computers, that's immediately in my domain because then I can start designing with them," says Benjamin.
Plant cells are one of Benjamin's latest experiments: xylem cells, the long hollow tubes that transport water in plants, are being designed as computer models and grown in a Cambridge University lab to create materials with the desired properties by recruiting—or engineering—different species of bacteria.
Emerging software, says Benjamin, will soon allow architects to create multi-material objects in a computer, translate these into biological models, and let biology finish the job by growing them under carefully engineered conditions, or tweaking the DNA to achieve precisely the right result. How completely the line between design, engineering and biology may soon be blurred is on display in this conceptual video of prototype software by one of Benjamin's collaborators, the design software creator Autodesk, exploring the envelope of a building from flat bio-composite sheets.
For all the promise and hype, biological manufacturing remains largely a laboratory experiment. Benjamin's grown materials are "coarse." Rather than finely filagreed materials, the sheets of calcium and cellulose are crude assemblies. But if manufacture of biofuels and medicine is any precedent, that will change fast. Eight or 10 years should be enough time to see the technology enter commercial production for specialized uses, and then broaden over time, says Benjamin.
Living Foundries Program, a Department of Defense initiative, is hoping to hasten that time frame by replacing today's approach to engineering biology—an "ad hoc, laborious, trial-and-error process, wherein one successful project often does not translate to enabling subsequent new designs"—with an "on-demand" production process shaving decades and hundreds of millions of dollars off the technology—an enormously attractive idea for agencies that spend $23 billion to keep the military machine humming each year.
This, in turn, may open up what the former U.S. energy secretary Stephen Chu has called the "glucose economy," an economic system powered largely by plant-derived sugars grown in tropical countries and shipped around the world, much as we do with petroleum today. Once factories switch to sugar as a primary energy source, and precisely engineered bacteria become the means of manufacture, the model of human civilization may flip from one powered by fossil fuels to one running largely on biologically captured sunlight.
Like many promising technologies, however, biological manufacturing has "proven to be a little more difficult than people thought," even as new possibilities emerge from early setbacks.
It's a cliche, but these are unprecedented times in the history of human progress. Exponential growth is an unimaginably powerful force, and we have now shifted into exponential gear, doubling everything from wealth to pollution to transistors every few years. And since we've never approached today's pace before, all bets are off.