4D printed objects ‘make themselves’

March 1, 2013

Cube self-folding strand (credit: Self-Assembly Lab, MIT/Stratasys)

At the TED conference in Los Angeles, architect and computer scientist Skylar Tibbits showed how the process allows objects to self-assemble, BBC News reports.

It could be used to install objects in hard-to-reach places such as underground water pipes, he suggested.

It might also herald an age of self-assembling furniture, said experts.

Smart materials

“We’re proposing that the fourth dimension is time and that over time static objects will transform and adapt,” he told the BBC.

The process uses a specialized 3D printer made by Stratasys that can create multi-layered materials.

It combines a strand of standard plastic with a layer made from a “smart” material that can absorb water.

The water acts as an energy source for the material to expand once it is printed.

“The rigid material becomes a structure and the other layer is the force that can start bending and twisting it,” said Mr Tibbits. Such a process could in future be used to build furniture, bikes, cars and even buildings, he thinks.

Engineering software developer Autodesk, which collaborated on the project, is looking even further into the future. “Imagine a scenario where you go to Ikea and buy a chair, put it in your room and it self-assembles,” said Carlo Olguin, principal research scientist at the software firm.

The 4D printing concept draws inspiration from nature which already has the ability to self-replicate.

“The next stage for the research is to move from printing single strands to sheets and eventually whole structures.