New MIT 3-D Printing Innovations Create Printable Objects That Assemble Themselves

With 4-D printing, Skylar Tibbits and the Self Assembly Lab are printing materials that fold, transform, and shape themselves, and could adapt to changing environmental conditions. No assembly required.

When Skylar Tibbits drops a plastic-like rod into a tub of water, it starts to take shape, turning into a cube. It’s a result of what he calls 4-D printing, which adds the fourth dimension, time, to the increasingly popular process of 3-D printing. Over the time dimension, the objects self-assemble. But this isn’t like adding water to shrunken animal-shaped sponges and watching them grow.

This notion of self-assembly seems futuristic, but it’s been researched before, particularly within the field of nanotechnology. And Tibbits, along with collaborators Stratasys Ltd. and Autodesk, sees the potential to use 4-D printed objects to solve larger efficiency problems in disaster relief or the oil and gas industries.

His Self Assembly Lab is working with engineering firm Geosyntec, to explore programmable water infrastructure. “The idea is these pipes would expand or contract to either pinch water, expand for capacity or potentially undulate to move water,” Tibbits says. Think of it--a water main that knew whether it needed to shrink or expand and could prevent burst pipes and eliminate pumps and valves.

With 3-D printing reaching the mainstream, Tibbits’s vision for 4-D printing isn’t exclusive to large problems either: “We want to try to find more elegant solutions to have smarter systems in interacting and making things on your own.”

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