4D Printers Would Enable Objects to Create Themselves

Proposed by scientists at MIT, 4D printing can revolutionize the way objects are not only printed but also created and used.

The idea, unveiled first by MIT scientist and TED fellow Skyler Tibbits at a TED University Talk on February 26, aims to answer the question of whether objects have the ability to form on their own. In a recap from TED, it was noted that the main concept here is that the 3D objects which are printed have a fourth property of transformation. The transformation is programmed into the material itself, with the idea being that the object is then able to form on its own. An example of this could be seen in a strip of material that is able to fold itself into a cube, or even a pipe for plumbing that is able to adjust on its own.  

Tibbits, who works at MIT on self-assembly, works on projects which give light to what a possible future of self-assembling materials would resemble. Tibbits gave a TED Talk on self-assembly in February 2011, which is related to the idea of 4D printing. Tibbits hopes that in the future, the process of self-assembly can be applied to the constructing furniture, bikes, cars, and possibly even buildings, which could in turn change the face of manufacturing.

In a report by BBC News, it's noted that specialized materials would be used in the construction of the printer. It was reported that a specialized 3D printer made by Stratasys that can create multi-layered materials will be used in the process. The layers are made using a smart material which is able to absorb water. The water is expected to act as an energy source for the material to expand once printed. Tibbits told the BBC, “We’re proposing that the fourth dimension is time and that over time static objects will transform and adapt.” This essentially means that an object can change shape over time, once printed.

A higher goal is using the elements of nature in order to make objects adapt and build on their own. As the BBC notes, 4D printing takes inspiration from sources in nature. However, in order for this idea to be of any use, different forms of energy must also be harnessed. Tibbits understands that heat, vibration, and sound are important to consider when constructing such objects.

As this Engadget article notes, “scientists will first have to demonstrate the technology on a larger structure.” Scientists will then be able to explore energy sources from heat, sound, and vibration in order to possibly look into using the material in the application of self-assembled furniture, bikes, cars, and buildings.

While there is still work to be done to make the idea of 4D printing real, scientists at MIT are hard at work to show that it can be done. With the idea of the fourth dimension, Tibbits is showing that science just might change how we view the construction and building of objects.