While the 3-D printing industry remains in a holding pattern of quasi-illegality and bombastic overexposure, some people are moving right along to the next dimension.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are developing a so-called "4D-printing technology" that will enable macro-sized 3D-printed materials to be programmed to self-assemble into predetermined structures and shapes. The technology could potentially change the construction and manufacturing industries, making it easier to build in environments, like outer space, where extreme conditions would cause construction to be expensive and dangerous.
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Led by Skylar Tibbits, director of the MIT Self-Assembly Lab, the 4D-printing process involves using materials that shift shapes in response to movement or when brought into contact with water, air, gravity, magnets and/or temperature change. The fourth dimension stands for the materials' ability to self-assemble.
In a recent TED Talk, Tibbits unveiled a new project in collaboration with 3D-printing company Stratasys.
"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."
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Like its three-dimensional cousin, 4-D printing is not guaranteed to take shape, but those at the Self-Assembly Lab believe the technology has capacity to revolutionize "biology, material science, software, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, the arts, and even space exploration."
Credit: Skylar Tibbits