4D Printing: Making Things That Make Themselves

Just as 3D printing is starting to be recognized by people outside of the engineering and design world, something new is on the scene – 4D printing.

What is 4D printing and how does it work? I’ll explain, but first, a bit of background…

Engineers and product designers have come to rely on 3D printing as a way to build three-dimensional solid objects from CAD models. These objects are often used for rapid prototyping and testing parts before final products are created.

The 3D printing process was invented in the late 1970s and industrial 3D printers have existed since the early 1980s. With 3D printers, virtual 3D CAD models are transformed into a physical object by adding successive layers of a material in different shapes to “print” a physical object. President Obama even spoke about 3D printing in his State of the Union speech as a technology that could help fuel high-tech job growth.

At the recent TED2013 conference, MIT researcher and TED fellow Sylar Tibbits discussed the concept of 4D printing. Tibbits is an architect, artist, and computer scientist, and his idea for 4D printing is to make things that make themselves.

With 4D printing, 3D printed objects take on a fourth property; in addition to length, width, and height, the fourth dimension is transformation over time. This transformation is programmed into the material itself and triggered by an outside energy source, such as heat, water, light or sound.

The video below demonstrates how a linear tube can self-assemble into a cube-shaped form. This is done by using smart materials at the joints which change based on contact with an energy source – in this case water. Self-assembly is defined by Tibbits as a process by which disordered parts build an ordered structure through only local interaction.

The MIT Self-Assembly Lab was founded to research this concept and make self-assembling objects a reality in the future. This cross-disciplinary research lab at MIT is composed of designers, scientists, and engineers inventing self-assembly technologies aimed at re-imagining the processes of construction, manufacturing, and infrastructure in the built environment.

So, what types of applications would lend themselves to 4D self-assembly?

Tibbits suggests this process could be used in the future for myriad applications, which is why he is studying how to program physical materials to build themselves.

In addition to physical materials, he states that on the micro and nano scales, there is an unprecedented revolution happening with the ability to program physical and biological materials to change shape, properties, and even compute outside of silicon-based matter.

In essence he is exploring how complex things, built with complex parts, come together in complex ways. Some initial ideas for self-assembly include:

  • Water pipes that sense the need to expand or contract
  • Construction projects
  • Manufacturing projects
  • Infrastructure
  • Furniture
  • Toys
  • Proteins
  • Viruses
  • Drug delivery systems
  • Assembly in extreme environments, such as space

What do you think? Will 4D printing become a reality? What applications can you envision?

Photo courtesy of MIT

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