"The idea behind 4-D printing is that you take multimaterial 3-D printing...and you add a new capability, which is transformation," he said. "This is like robotics without wires or motors."
Tibbits demonstrated this process by showing how a strand of 3D-printed "smart" material could fold into the letters M-I-T when placed in water. Tibbits said he believed that this was the first time a program of transformation has been directly embedded into a material itself. Researchers used Autodesk software called Project Cyborg to simulate and optimize how and when the material would fold.
"We can use the same software for the design of nano-scale self-assembly systems and human-scale self-assembly systems," he said.
Tibbits also said the Self-Assembly Lab is working with a Boston company called Geosyntec to develop a new paradigm for infrastructure piping.
"Imagine if water pipes could expand or contract to change capacity or change flow rate; or maybe undulate like peristaltics to move the water themselves," he said. "This isn't expensive pumps or valves, this is a completely programmable and adaptive pipe on its own."