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3-D Printing Is So Last Year, Welcome To The World Of 4-D Printing

What’s the extra dimension? A new project out of MIT is working to create materials that are so smart they can put themselves together.

Just as we were starting to wrap our mind around the world-changing (and moon-changing) potential of advancements in 3-D printing, an MIT scientist has dropped a technological bomb that makes it seem like yesterday’s innovation: by changing the 3 in 3-D to a 4.

"4-D printing" is what the wonderfully named MIT architect and design researcher Skylar Tibbits is working on. So is this a big deal? Or is it just semantic showmanship, custom-tailored to the already-bored-with-the-future crowd at TED?

It’s mostly the former. His ideas are revolutionary and in their early stages. And it’d be a lie to say the name—while branded for buzz—is without merit.

Tibbits’s research focus is materials that assemble themselves. In the past, he’s built toys and furniture based on principles from microbiology (like self-folding proteins), where embedded magnets, combined with shaking or adding water, can make certain materials snap into a predetermined shape. Now he’s working with a research material, so new it lacks a name, that he’s wrangled into auto-transforming into the letters MIT when a strand of it is dunked in water.

"What we’re saying here is, you design something, you print it, it evolves," Tibbits told Wired. "It’s like naturally embedding smartness into the materials."

Thus, while 3-D printing uses plastic to build computer renderings, 4-D printing involves printing materials that then turn into whatever you’re trying to make.

Fast Company's own Linda Tischler got a sneak peak of Tibbits’s new lab at MIT last week. Based on that experience, she writes: "Imagine if this technology could be used to construct pipes that could expand or contract based on their contact with water. They might get bigger to accommodate the runoff from a hurricane, then contract when the emergency is over. Imagine pipes that could bend—but not break—during an earthquake. […] Imagine if that desk you bought from Ikea could assemble itself, while you kicked back and watched the game."

Of course, there’s a lot of imagining involved at this point. But it’s fascinating stuff.

Watch Tibbits’s TED talk from 2011 about the project’s earliest stages here.