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What if you could train or, more precisely, program a material like wood, carbon or rubber to virtually complete the manufacturing process of whatever object it is destined to become? And what if the material continued transforming, adapting to its function or various functions? The Self-Assembly Lab at MIT has developed a method for programming materials such as hybrid plastics, wood grains, textiles, and carbon fiber to adjust their property and shape in response to anticipated conditions like an increase in temperature, pressure, or moisture.

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In a process that Skylar Tibbits, research scientists and director of the Self-Assembly Lab has called “4D printing,” materials like carbon fiber and rubber are programmed to behave, in a sense, like motorless, wireless, power source-less robots. When subjected to “passive energy sources,” explains Tibbits, the materials respond according to their respective functions.

Skylar Tibbits

Skylar Tibbits

When the Self-Assembly labs released its findings at TED in February of 2013, the response was surprising even to them despite understanding what a breakthrough they’d made. Applications they had not even considered were proposed and the enthusiasm was enormous. From construction, automotive, medical, and aviation industries to apparel and furniture, the researchers were encouraged to expand their own conceptions of what was now possible thanks to this new technology.

After the unveiling of this technology, which Tibbits refers to as “4D printing”–the fourth dimension being time–the team at MIT began developing materials that would respond according to programmed parameters, to light, water, heat, air pressure, and so forth.

Tibbits provided an example of a practical application for this technology. Carbon fiber that is programmed to be self-transforming is 3D printed accordingly. The carbon fiber, while fully cured, is produced with built-in flexibility. Depending on its function, different materials that activate it are 3D printed onto the carbon fiber.

 

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Airbus, which manufactures aircrafts, recognized the potential of this technological breakthrough in their industry. They needed to solve the problem of engine drag created by a robotic mechanism that regulates airflow to the engine. The programmed carbon fiber, because of its bi-directional nature, has the capacity to respond to heat in order to control airflow. Suddenly, the need for potentially failure-prone and often excessive parts and equipment like sensors, electronics and batteries is reduced. Also, carbon fiber and carbon-fiber composites, are both strong and extremely light.

Another fascinating thread of research is Self-Assembly Lab’s work with rubber, which they are finding can be programmed and 3D printed–or 4D printed, allowing for the anticipated forces to which the materials will respond over time. Imagine: The rubber in your car’s tires could be programmed to respond to increased moisture or cold, changing their grip on ice or in rainy conditions.

And then there is wood. Most everyone has experience with the issues involved when constructing something with wood. If it gets wet, for instance, an heirloom table can become a tragic reminder of its once elegantly-crafted self. The veneer curls away from its base, defying the glue that had adeptly held it in place. However, with programmed and 3D printed wood grains, adaptation to potentially damaging influences is built in and the material becomes resistant to undesirable distortion.

4D printed wood, plastic, canvas and carbon fiber

4D printed wood, plastic, canvas and carbon fiber

The Self-Assembly Lab team has found a means of controlling materials to move, or otherwise respond by applying data from previous experiments to simulate influences or energy and change the wood grain’s response using the Autodesk software, Project Cyborg. Formerly, wood is steamed, molded, or pressure treated to get it to bend but with this technology, such labor-intensive efforts will potentially be a thing of the past. This also has exciting implications for shipping materials. A product made from programmed wood grains, for example, could be shipped flat and then programmed to transform into its ultimate shape–a bookshelf or a chair, for instance.

Currently, technology is catching up with innovation as 3D printers are being developed to realize these new methods of creating not-quite-raw materials for use in an unimaginable myriad of ways. The response to this technology, which took Tibbits and his team somewhat by surprise, is probably less surprising to them now as they work to expand the possibilities and applications of Tibbit’s revolutionary “4D printing.”

Let’s hear your thoughts on what this technology could be used for in the MIT 4D printing forum thread on 3DPB.com.  Check out the two videos below provided by the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT showing off their self-assembling wood and carbon fiber:

 

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