As if the rise of 3D printing in the past few years wasn’t cool enough, MIT’s Skylar Tibbits just unveiled the future of 4D printing in a TED talk this week. It may sound unbelievable, but the new technology combines 3D printing with shape-shifting design. Tibbits explained that the process involves a 3D-printed object that is capable of self-assembling or changing into another shape when exposed to an outside factor like heat, water, light or sound.
Tibbits, who is an architect, artist, computer scientist, and most importantly, director of MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, demonstrated 4D printing with a material that reacted when submerged in water. Using a 3D-printed tube with links and perforations, Tibbits showed the audience how when dropped in water, the piece slowly bent itself into a cube-like shape, only prompted by the material’s reaction to the water.
The key to 4D printing is to use materials with known reactions to energy sources, and to program and manipulate their reactions. The materials are programmed with tools like AutoDesk, which can predict and control their reaction to water, heat, and other desired variables. By creating strands and pieces of material with specific sized links, Tibbits can predict just how they will fold and join together when reacting to the energy catalyst, like in the cube.
If 4D printing is developed, it could change how things are assembled, with possibilities like self-assembling research stations for outer space or underwater.