4-D Printer Makes Shape-Shifting Wood

One day you could buy a flat-packed piece of furniture from Ikea, take it home, wet it down with a garden hose and watch self-assemble.

Just as 3-D printers create objects that have three-dimensional characteristics, 4-D printers create objects that have four-dimensional characteristics, in that they include a dynamic component that causes their structure to change over time -- relying on water, heat, or light to activate them.

Using a multi-material printer, it's possible to generate objects with these properties all in one go. Such "programmable materials" may one day mean that you can buy flat-pack furniture at Ikea, take it home, spray it with a garden hose and then watch it assemble itself. We don't even have to speculate: MIT is working on this exact thing.

To understand how a programmable material works, think about what often happens to a thin strip of wood if you get it wet: It warps, as different parts of the wood swell in slightly different ways. Usually, this is bad, because the warping is unpredictable and related to the type of wood, the patterns in the grain of that wood, how and where it gets wet, and so forth. If you could somehow predict the warping, though, you might be able to find a piece of wood that you could deliberately warp into a shape that you wanted, just by adding water.

This is not a thing that we can do with natural wood, but that's fine, because we don't need natural wood anymore. With 3-D printing, it's possible to manufacture pieces of wood with whatever composition, thickness and grain characteristics that you wan.

With a comprehensive understanding of how the material behaves, along with computer models, you can 3-D print a piece of artificial wood that's been "pre-programmed" -- using carefully constructed layers of various thicknesses and grain directions -- to warp itself from flat into exactly the shape you want. Just add water.

The MIT Self-Assembly Lab (under the direction of Skylar Tibbits) has been developing a variety of programmable materials, not just wood. The Lab's also working on textiles (imagine a flat piece of cloth that turns into a cowboy hat whenever it starts to rain), along with slightly more exotic materials like flexible carbon fiber.

Working closely with Carbitex, an advanced materials company with a radical new flexible carbon fiber technology, CX6™, we have developed a system to produce programmable carbon fiber material that can fold, curl, twist and respond to a variety of activation energies. By printing various materials within the flexible carbon fiber grain, we are able to promote local curvature when subject to heat, light or moisture. Programmable carbon fiber enables a wide range of applications from morphable airplane flaps to self-regulating air intake valves, adaptive aerodynamics, tunable stiffness structures and a variety of other dynamic applications. These capabilities were previously impossible or required expansive and complex robotics but are now feasible through programmable material transformations.

The big advantage of these programmable materials (besides the potential for easy furniture assembly) is that you can make things that move and react to their environment without having to introduce complex, expensive, heavy actuation systems and the electronics required to drive them.

The aerospace industry is already interested in this sort of thing (Airbus is working with MIT on a jet engine air intake regulator), but Tibbits was willing to speculate toFast Company about such things as self-lacing McFly sneakers from Back to the Future II. And that self-assembling flat-pack furniture? MIT is already talking with an unnamed furniture company (that may or may not be based in Sweden) about making it a reality.

MIT Self Assembly Lab via Fast Company

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Using a multi-material printer, it’s possible to generate objects with four-dimensional characteristics.

In the consumer and tech markets, 3-D printing is used to build cars, robots, footwear, rockets, gun and just about anything else you can imagine. But in the world of art, visual artists are just beginning to explore the creative ways to use 3-D printers to expand their work. A painter’s canvas, one dimensional until now, suddenly can show depth and perspective, while a sculptor’s own laser-scanned body can become the working model for 3-D printed works.

Reclining Figure by Sophie Kahn

Way back in 2003, while studying at a university in Melbourne, Sophie Kahn observed a group of architects using 3-D scanning and printing. “I started using the scanner on my own body in the lab, and to me it was very reminiscent of art history and classical sculpture and indicative of the fragmentation and decay of ancient art,” Kahn said. “So I am interested in the melding of ancient and futuristic art.”

Here, she combines 3-D laser scanning and 3-D printing with ancient bronze casting techniques to achieve a timeless, deconstructed look.


Kahn says she purposefully uses a 3-D model in a way that will generate errors and glitches in the final printing process.

“I use motion of the body because the scanner does not handle a moving breathing body very well. It misunderstands that, so you get multiple overlapping figures,” she said. “I sculpt that, and it’s very labor intensive. I spend a couple of months on each piece, using digital sculpting software. When I’m happy with it, I send it out to the printer."

Kahn’s work can be seen at sophiekahn.net, and in an upcoming exhibit at Connecticut College, Oct. 28 to Dec. 6, 2013.

Protocolonization of Commons

Artist Shane Hope sits at the intersection of science and technology via molecular nanotechnology, the science of modifying objects at the atomic or molecular level. “My goal is to glean abnormalities that aesthetically accentuate messy molecular modeling,” he said. “I've hand-hobbled together a bunch of bots (3-D printers) from scratch and I employ them more like painting assistants.”

Nano-Nonobjective Noo-Zoos

Hope, whose work will be shown Oct. 18 to Feb. 2, 2014 at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts “Dissident Futures” exhibition, was trained as a painter. Although he has no formal computer science training, he uses open-source nano molecular design software to create his complex designs and uses several 3-D printers in his studio. Each piece uses thousands of 3D-printed models.


In the heart of a 150-acre redwood forest, architect Bryan Allen and art practice psychologist Stephanie Smith installed Echoviren, a 10x10x8-foot, 3D-printed translucent enclosure. “We used seven printers running 24 hours a day producing essentially 500 individual pieces,” Allen told DNews. “We used run-of-the-mill 3-D desktop printers. The 3-D printer compresses the time from conception of an idea to its fruition and building. You use the same tool to evaluate your design, to produce prototypes and to produce the final design.”

The artists’ goal was to create a space in the forest influenced by the environment and coastal redwoods.

“For us, it really democratizes the production of large scale work,” Allen said. The project will decompose naturally within 40 to 50 years.


Frank Stella can safely be called a pioneer in the use of 3-D printing for art, since he first started experimenting with it in the mid 1990s. Stella gained fame in the 1950s with geometrics in nature paintings.

Stella starts with a handmade model, sometimes made from paper, which he scans and captures as a digital image. He then cuts and pastes from other existing models before manipulating and refining the image and sending to a 3-D printer.


Stella, whose work will be shown at the Museum of Art and Design in New York City from Oct. 16 to July 6, 2014, sometimes adds elements of wire or steel tubing for more texture and depth. “Stella sees the 3D-printed form as a canvas for him to apply paint,” said Ron Labaco, curator at the Museum of Arts and Design. “The works range from tabletop, about two and a half feet across, to larger free-standing or wall hangings that are as large as six or eight feet across. He works with some of the 3-D printing companies in Europe that have the largest printers.”

Dogma 1

Fans who were surprised at the intricate artwork on Kanye West’s 2012 album, “Cruel Summer” can thank Parisian artist Hugo Arcier. Arcier, trained in digital filmmaking and 3-D graphic arts, creates original objects using 3-D printers. “Using 3-D printers probably blurs the line between art and design and some projects I do with 3D-printing technology can be considered more as design,” Arcier told DNews. “I’m excited about the link between art and science.”

Dogma 2

Arcier, whose work will be on display at Show Off, the annual Paris art fair, form Oct. 21-23, says artists have a long history of incorporating technology into their work. He points to Andy Warhol’s use of screen printing as an example.

“3-D printing is a technology that evolves very quickly so I am paying close attention to it,” Arcier said. “There are more and more materials available. I am doing some tests now with rubber material. I think it can be used very creatively. I also look forward to the possibility of printing bigger objects, since the size is really a limitation now."