You are probably sick and tired of the buzzwords of the 4th Industrial Revolution. We are being replaced by robots, manipulated by cobots, we are employing 5G and RPA, optimizing processes and digitizing factories; yet the real revolution in manufacturing going on now is much more subtle. It’s all about materials.

Material science has developed so rapidly in the last few years there wasn’t even time to create a buzzword. From airplane wings that change physical properties according to altitude, to wristbands telling you that you are too intoxicated to drive and plastic made from shrimps – material science is revolutionizing manufacturing. And much of it is due to innovative concepts in biomaterials.

Biodesign is invading plants

Spider silk, fungi, bacteria are all our friends in the industrial revolution. Bacteria for example need nutrients to produce stuff: whether its a specific pigment, a vitamin, or paper. A company called Ecovative runs The Mycelium Biofabrication Platform, making plastics out of mushrooms and the harvest leftovers of corn (maize).

With enough research, experts say, there is nothing we can’t make out of biological substances.

A company in New York called Modern Meadow is growing leather without the cows, producing the collagen directly and allowing it to control durability, composition, flexibility, and other physical properties.

Most of the companies in this space are not aiming to imitate existing materials, but to create new and better materials. Biomaterials mean less suffering for animals, less chemistry, fewer additives and toxic cleaning processes, and greater production efficiency.

In the medical implant industry, the US-based Invibio has 15 years of experience using Peek polymers to create medical devices in implants. They recently launched a spinal stabilization system in China that helps create semi-rigid spinal rods. As of 2015 they had produced over five million peek polymer medical implants worldwide.

Adidas has released a spider silk and is working on growing sportswear in giant vats. Until now, most materials were natural or synthetic. Biofabrication means a whole new generation of materials, ones that are “naturally synthetic”.

Naturally synthetic materials

There is no field not affected by this shift in material science. Decellularized scaffolds, ultra-light gels with almost magical durability, self-assembling biomaterials

While still siloed and experimental, experts are predicting a giant shift in manufacturing in the next years. The seat in your car, the table you eat your breakfast, and the glass you pour your wine in may all be made from entirely new and sustainable materials.

Industrial biorefineries are the key to implementing national bio-economy strategy and promoting the development towards renewable resource utilization. The reduction of waste and optimization of high value-added final products are currently the biggest challenge.

Many governments are behind the push into biomaterials. Finland’s 3D-Biomat research program is divided into three stages: I) fundamental research of polymeric
biomaterials, I) use of the materials developed and, III) creation of business and cyber/digitalization concepts to monetize them.

The other drivers are the leading research institutes such as ITRI in Taiwan or the Fraunhofer Institut of Germany, both focussing on functional materials to replace existing choices in manufacturing or to be applied to the surfaces of finished products made of anything from steel to plastic.

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The 5th Industrial Revolution is Starting in Medical Laboratories

It is beyond doubt that the biggest impact from biomaterials will come together with what futurists are calling 5IR or the 5th Industrial Revolution when we gradually switch to additive and molecular production techniques. Perhaps surprisingly, the early stages of this development are happening in the medical sector. Skin grafts, bones, and whole organs are being printing, paving the way for similar changing in the way we make products.

In the medical implant industry, the US-based Invibio has 15 years of experience using Peek polymers to create medical devices in implants. They recently launched a spinal stabilization system that helps create semi-rigid spinal rods.

Another medial company, Organovo, is using 3D bioprinting to create human liver tissue. From this tissue they are making human liver models for medical research that are alive and function for 28 days.

In the skin regeneration and protection field, the Spanish company Histocell has created a naturally occurring gel found in the umbilical cords of animals that has tremendous regenerative properties.

The list goes on. Medical applications are opening new frontiers to the technologies that will shape manufacturing in the coming decades.