If you haven't yet gotten used to the idea that 3D printing is playing an important role in the supply chain, you'd better hurry up. 4D printing is about to change today's manufacturing by adding transformation capabilities to 3D-printed objects on an industrial scale.
Self-assembly, replication, self-repair, and self-adaptation will change design, and the creative process that gives life to components, giving birth to a new era in the manufacturing world. 3D printing will no longer be a component's end-of-life. On the contrary, it will be just the beginning.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Self-Assembly Lab's director, Skylar Tibbits, a trained architect, designer, and computer scientist, has been working in collaboration with Stratasys and Autodesk to develop smart components that after being 3D printed can reconfigure themselves without the assistance of a human being.
According to a press release:
4D Printing entails multi-material prints provided by Stratasys' Connex Technology with the added capability of embedded transformation from one shape to another, directly off the print-bed. This revolutionary technique offers a streamlined path from idea to reality with full functionality built directly into the materials. Imagine robotics-like behavior without the reliance on complex electro-mechanical devices.
The work with 4D printing is a collaboration between Stratasys's Education and R&D departments, and MIT's Self-Assembly Lab. Stratasys is one of the leading companies in 3D printing. Using Stratasys's already existing Connex multi-material technology, and a new expanding material developed by Stratasys, and adding Autodesk's software used for 4D printing, the team has been able to add transformation capabilities to 3D printed objects. This fourth dimension opens doors to new possibilities that can be applied to different manufacturing sectors, including aerospace, automotive, building, and water-piping.
By using a specialized 3D printer from Stratasys, manufacturers can create multi-layered materials. These materials can be programmed in any 1D, 2D, or 3D shape. Programming the materials with transformation capabilities adds the 4D.
Watch a 4D-printed, self-folding surface cube experiment by MIT's Self-Assembly Lab, and Stratasys:
(Source: Skylar Tibbits)
Adding the 4D
During a Skype interview, Skylar explained that smart components change shape, property, and make decisions by adding information into physical components, and this doesn't mean sensors, accelerators, or robotics. 4D printing is one example of a smart component.
4D printing is a good example of smart components because supports printing with multiple materials: one rigid, and one that expands 50 times in water. In this way the expandable material expands the rigid material, the structure, and all the information in it.
Skylar told me that even though they are not specifically targeting the electronics space, there is a lot of opportunity there. For example, the devices themselves could be 4D printed if the device would have 4D properties, or smart component properties.
In this short TED video, Skylar Tibbits explains the emergence of 4D printing:
Skylar is in active search for a manufacturing partner to bring the 4D-printing project to the next level. A company with vision into the future will be able to see the potential, and participate in one of the most exciting emerging technologies we are seeing these days.
Right now, it's more of a dream with amazing possibilities. Apply your imagination to it: What applications would you like to see resulting from 4D printing?