Catarina Mota on the Open Materials Movement

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Interview conducted by Simone Cicero:

"Simone Cicero What will be the implications of bringing the study of new materials out of the research centers: how much is the DIY world ready to create new materials and generate innovation? What kind of material do you foresee people will be inventing, hacking, modifying? and following what necessities, gaps? How opening materials will make them smarter?

Catarina MotaI believe that the implications of bringing materials out of research centers are very similar to what has already happened with hardware: we’ll see materials-hacking, new applications and possibly even new materials come out of it. It’s all about critical mass. Material scientists have the know-how and the tools, and they’re creating amazing new materials, but once you put that knowledge and those tools in the hands of a large number of people they will come up with things a smaller group probably wouldn’t have thought of.

We’re still taking the first steps towards open source materials and we don’t yet have critical mass. But our tools are getting more sophisticated and there’s increasingly more knowledge and experimentation out there. So while we’re not yet ready to create new materials and devise major innovations, we’re paving the way for that to happen.

I think we’ll start with two kinds of materials – in fact we already have:

Simpler smart materials such as conductive ink, which don’t require extensive chemistry knowledge nor expensive equipment. Earlier this year, Jordan Bunker from Pumping Station read a research paper from two materials scientists from UIUC and was able to reproduce their method for making conductive ink at his hackerspace. A couple months after that, Nick Vermeer from NYC Resistor, also based on a research paper by materials scientists, published his first successful experiment in creating a DIY conductive ink.

Materials for 3D printing: as 3D printers become more popular, more and more attention is being paid to the materials they use. We haven’t yet seen any major breakthroughs, but there are already a few projects focused on creating filament makers and recyclers, such as the Filabot. I expect that, in addition to experiments with ABS and PLA, we’ll also see some action in the development of UV-curable resins (which are expensive) as well as in materials for laser-cutting and milling.

The necessities and gaps these materials fill are access to better and cheaper materials for things we are already doing: creating circuits and fabricating objects.

As Eric von Hippel suggests, users know exactly what they want so they’re particularly well positioned to design and prototype it. What this means is that we’ll likely hack or create materials to do things only we know we need. So materials will become smarter in the sense that they’ll be better adapted to fit specific needs.

[Simone Cicero] Does it exist for open materials a real business opportunity to create companies and productive activities around a shared and collaborative research framework such as has happened for open source or open hardware so far?

[Catarina Mota] I believe so. As the open source hardware and maker movements expand, so does our need for materials with which to make things. And right now, most materials producers aren’t paying attention to this, they’re completely focused on supplying large manufacturing businesses and few make their products available in small enough quantities to be acquired by makers. So there are definitely untapped business opportunities here, specially in what concerns materials for digital fabrication.

[Simone Cicero] In evaluating the implications of decentralization, materials are central. In creating a new decentralized structure of production, what are the cross-implications between design and materials? On the one hand, design must seek new ways to create products and learn how to be materials invariant in some way – otherwise will be hard to collaborate globally on a real global library of “productibles” – on the other hand we have to invent materials that are open, hackable, versatile (to avoid harming the design and creation process too much).

[Catarina Mota] I don’t see this as problem as long as there is good documentation. The same way we now identify parts in BOMs, specifying the part number and linking to spec sheets, we can do something similar for materials. For example, there are several types of thermochromic paints now available which are activated at different temperatures, but as long as we have this information we can select the one we need. The same thing applies to other materials: if we publish recipes for a material and also include a clear explanation of the resulting properties, people will know which recipe to choose for their application. It’s really not that different from the way open source hardware works, it’s all about good documentation!

[Simone Cicero] In addition to the design world – that is always in advance on such innovations – which productive field you think it should develop an interest in open materials – even though it did not so far? Iin general, which are the application areas where we have the most need to create new materials? Also what are the more important and interesting axes of innovation (eg sustainability, recycling, longevity, versatility) for materials?

[Catarina Mota] I think the area in which we currently have the most need for P2P materials research is digital fabrication. We now have access to the hardware itself so our need for cheaper and more sustainable materials is also increasing. This is urgent since we’re making more things than ever before and we need to start thinking of ways to recycle/reuse failed prints and leftovers.

Another area that has had some attention, but not enough, are biomaterials, some of which have existed for a long time. I’m thinking for example of cardboard, cork and bioplastic. I believe that a lot of the innovation waiting to happen will not be about creating new materials, but about finding new uses for traditional materials. I live in NYC and every week we put out tons of cardboard to be recycled. Recycling still requires a non-trivial consumption of energy. So every time I see these mounds of cardboard on the street I wonder if we can repurpose it locally to build furniture, bricks, planters, etc. Cork is also an amazing material: it’s renewable, sound/temperature insulating, and long lasting. Why don’t we use it more?

Another interesting aspect of this has to do with the longevity of materials. Some of the materials I stock tend to go bad after a while, specially during the summer when it gets very hot. My stock of magnetic paint, for example, was constantly drying up. Now that I created my own formula, I can just make whatever quantity I need when I need it. I also started stocking thermochromic pigments. That way I only mix them with the binder when I’m about to use it. And I can also make different types of paint from a single batch of pigments: acrylic, oil, screen printing, fabric, etc. So there is a lot less waste and much more flexibility.

[Simone Cicero] Often we appeal to the social implications of the Open & p2p revolution. Since this paradigm has gained visibility in time – because it regards production of hardware, tangible objects – and the Maker (and hackers) culture is actually getting everyday more traction; we finally started to question the digital, decentralized, p2p manufacturing as a future alternative to large-scale industrial production. What are in your opinion the implications of these changes in term of equity, new opportunities, transformation of labor relations or even for the overall sustainability of production and consumption of goods?

[Catarina Mota] My personal take on this is that we’re not uprooting a system and replacing it with an entirely new one. That would have devastating economic and social consequences as history has shown. We’re simply proposing and exploring an alternative. And we’re doing this the way makers/hackers do everything: by executing it and thus showing a proof of concept that can be expanded. It used to be really hard to argue that open source businesses are viable, but now we have so many examples of successful companies that we don’t need to argue anymore. All we have to do is point at these real-life examples.

You speak of an alternative to mass production and in my opinion alternative is the keyword. We’re not abolishing the old system, we’re making it better. We’ll still need mass production for many things, such as nuts and bolts, that are standard and required in large quantities. What I hope we’ll see is an emerging ecosystem in which both large and small producers will be highly networked, with information flowing across many nodes.

There will be more opportunities for small producers to arise and subsist. Though, as Limor Fried once pointed out, it’s important to realize that the skills involved in designing and making good hardware are not the same skills required to successfully run a manufacturing business. Meaning: being able to design and make a good prototype is not a guarantee of commercial success. We’ve seen this over and over again in kickstarter campaigns, for example, in which the creators had a brilliant idea for a product, made a working prototype, raised the money to produce it, but then run into all sorts of problems when trying to manufacture and distribute it. Economies of scale are still in place, 3D printing hasn’t replaced injection molding and may never do so. Also, as businesses become more successful, demand also increases so no matter how enthusiastic a group of people may be, they will not be able to make each and every item themselves. Therefore, lowering the barriers to entry will allow more small businesses to emerge, but we shouldn’t expect all of them to succeed. The key here is to know your market and what you can do so you can determine in which area of the ecosystem you can participate. The up side is that the cost of failure is also decreasing, so if your business fails you can probably start afresh.

As for environmental sustainability, I think we’re at a crossroads here. The ease with which we can now make things could either be a disaster or the best thing ever. On the one hand, this can lead us to think of objects as disposable (we can just make a new one if we don’t like what we currently have). On the other hand, as Morton, Mochon and Ariely describe in the IKEA Effect, we may develop special relationships with the things we make/assemble ourselves which will make us more likely to want to repair them when they break. If this happens, the life cycle of products will be extended. And, of course, it goes without saying, that making or assembling things locally will also play an important part in terms of environmental sustainability, specially if it uses as many locally available materials as possible." (