Turns out if you got close enough to touch a shark's skin and walk away, that wet and smooth looking surface has a complex engineering that scientists at Harvard University have replicated using...you guessed it, 3D printing.
George Lauder, Li Wen and James Weaver from Harvard University studied a sample of shark skin, used state-of-the-art scanning and 3D modeling programs to replicate the tooth-like surface of a shark skin called 'denticles'. For the past year these scientists have been testing materials and 3D printing technologies to figuring out printing the simulated shark skin so that the microscopic denticles (which are a hard material) could be fused to a softer flexible material that could simulate that exact qualities that have fascinated researchers about shark skin.
The articles published in The Company of Biologists Journal of Experimental Biology represent the ongoing interest on the part of scientists, engineers and designers to learn and innovate based on biomimetic research and development. Lauder, Wen and Weaver were able to design a robotic flapping device covered with the 3D printed surface which consisted of thousands of the hard denticle-like forms all aligned in a linear- arrayed pattern. They used this robotic device to test swimming speeds and other simulated tests. It has long been suspected that the skin surface of a shark allows for greater energy efficiency and increased swimming speed among serving other functions.
While it is clear that the high-grade 3D printing machinery needed to achieve this biomimetic skin is not readily on the market for the average user and will not be a downloaded digital file in the near future from GrabCad or other 3D printing platforms, one thing is clear, the imaginative potential not only in the future of materials but also of the potential biomimetic applications in surface design and in wearable technology is quite exciting. What will they 3D print next?
To learn more about Lauder, Wen and Weaver's research and newly published article, visit http://jeb.biologists.org/content/217/10/1656.abstract