While some of us have only just got our heads round 3D printing and its potential, you might shudder at the thought of 4D printing but it’s already here. The concept: 3D printed objects that seamlessly expand, fold and harden into different forms.

The cynic’s first reaction is to label 4D a gimmick, pointing out that the fourth dimension is in fact time, however at the TED conference in Los Angeles, architect and computer scientist Skylar Tibbits showed us just how it works and it’s ingeniously simple: 4D allows objects to self-assemble and adapt.

Self-adaptive objects

While a 3D printer builds things up layer by layer, Tibbits has developed a technology where chunks of material start separated and then intelligently arrange themselves into a pre-programmed object, and furthermore, create objects that can change after they are first printed meaning they are self adaptive. Tibbit’s philosophy is that the physical act of 3D printing is not the end of the process, merely part of the design journey.

Imagine if water pipes could expand or contract

The technology will be developed at the new MIT Self Assembly Lab and Stratasys, a Minnesota and Israel based 3D printing company. Tibbits will also work on the development of Autodesk software to programme the 4D printing systems.

Essentially it works by harnessing water to activate and power strands of material that fold themselves into pre-programmed shapes. The process uses a specialist printer built by Stratasys that creates multi-layered materials. It takes a smart material that can absorb water and combines it with a normal piece of plastic. It’s placed in water, which acts as an energy source for the material to expand once it is printed.

He explained the concept by telling a packed TED audience: “Imagine if water pipes could expand or contract… or even undulate to move the water themselves.”

The evolution of 3D printing

Tibbits has been working on self-assembly – the idea that instead of building something we can create materials which build themselves – for the last two years.

Tibbits says: “What we’re saying here is, you design something, you print it, it evolves. It’s like naturally embedding smartness into the materials.”

Practical uses could include furniture, construction and eventually aerospace development. Tibbits believes that the technology could be most useful for astronauts in space.

He said: “We’ve recently submitted for a NASA solicitation and are hoping to continue designing and developing new methods for full reconfiguration and self-assembly of highly functional space systems. We are interested in the opposite methodology of the international space station (or space construction today), in other words, complex structures made in expensive and complex ways that come together in even more complex ways — often requiring astronaut construction and costly energy sources.

“How can we develop simple systems that can be shipped compactly that then expand and become fully functional on demand while in orbit, that can be fully reconfigurable to various other highly functional systems, completely on their own and triggered by activation energies naturally found in the space environment — such as pressure, light and temperature change?”

Coming out of MIT

Alongside 4D, Tibbits announced the launch of the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT. The department has been tasked with developing the concept.

We are interested in the opposite methodology of the international space station

“The lab is just starting and it’s a really exciting time. We were recently offered space at a great place at MIT called The International Design Center, and we’re currently fundraising, grant writing and collaborating with various industry partners to kick start the lab for the upcoming year. We are interested in developing near-term applications that can make a more adaptive and resilient environment, as well as very far-term design for the future of “making” and lifelike materials at the macro scale.”

The next step in the development is to print sheets, working up to whole structures and also looking at alternative energy sources to water. I’ll leave you with this thought, in the future you could buy a chair from Ikea, pop it in your living room and it will assemble itself. Although for some, this might take that warm sense of achievement away.


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