MIT's "4D" Printed Materials Change Shape After Printing

By Wesley Fenlon

MIT's Skylar Tibbits wants to change rapid prototyping with materials that assemble themselves after being printed.

Nanite alert! A new "intelligent" printing system MIT Labs cooked up and unveiled at this year's TED conference sounds dangerously similar to the microscopic wunderbots of science fiction. MIT's Skylar Tibbits announced a 4D Printing project at TED on Tuesday, which uses 3D printing as a base before adding in materials that can change shape after being printed. "Imagine robotics-like behavior without the reliance on complex electro-mechanical devices!" says the project page on Tibbits' SJET website.

Photo via TED Flickr

So the self-assembling print objects aren't quite up to nanite level of sophistication. We can breathe a sigh of relief at that, and then look at what this technology's actually doing. According to Wired, the process works with multiple types of plastic materials. After being printed, a component--which looks like a multi-segmented bendy straw--is placed into water, which brings it to life. Slowly, the joints contract into a pre-determined shape, transforming a 3D printed part into a new object.

The project was designed in collaboration with 3D printing company Stratasys, MIT's Self-Assembly Lab, and Autodesk, who are helping design software that the SJET site says "allows for simulated self-assembly and programmable materials as well as optimization for design constraints and joint folding." Tibbits aims to change the current 3D printing workflow: "The tightly coupled software and hardware tools will eliminate the traditional paradigms of 1. simulating then building or 2. building then adjusting the simulation."

SJET has uploaded a pair of videos showing the materials self-assemble into simple shapes. While the technology is in its infancy, the idea of an Autodesk application being able to control how those pieces behave after printing is really cool. There's no telling how sophisticated these materials will eventually become.

This isn't Tibbits' first stab at making objects that make themselves, either. At TED in 2011, he talked about self-building materials that take a cue from the complexity and efficiency of proteins and DNA in natural systems.