MIT provides a place for brilliant minds to develop in each other’s company and, not surprisingly, fascinating developments in design and technology are produced there as a result. One of the many internal organizations that create this atmosphere of experimentation and innovation is the Self-Assembly Lab. The Self-Assembly Lab is a research lab dedicated to the creation of self-assembly and programmable material technologies. Their latest creation, rapid liquid printing, is generating a great deal of interest as it could potentially create a tectonic shift in the way that 3D printing of objects is conceived and produced.
Rapid Liquid Printing (RLP) differs from traditional 3D printing in that rather than build an object up by laying down layer after layer of material, the object is created by drawing in a liquid gel suspension that works to support the object as it is robotically drawn. This process is not only faster than traditional 3D printing but allows for the creation objects with much greater degrees of intricacy. The Self-Assembly Lab team make the case for their new and improved 3D printing process as follows:
“3D printing hasn’t taken off as a mainstream manufacturing process for three main reasons: 1) it’s too slow compared to conventional processes like injection molding, casting, milling, etc. 2) it’s limited by scale – although it’s good for creating small components, it’s not possible to produce large scale objects 3) the materials are typically low-quality compared to industrial materials. Rapid Liquid Printing addresses all of these limitations: it is incredibly fast (producing structures in a matter of minutes), designed for large scale products (you can print an entire piece of furniture) and uses real-world, industrial-grade materials.”
The most recent products using this technology are part of a collection created by Swiss designer Christoph Guberan and the Self-Assembly Lab and are on display, and available for purchase at the Patrick Parrish Gallery in New York. The exhibition, entitled Liquid to Air: Pneumatic Objects, is on display until August 26, and is comprised of objects that are printed from a stretchy silicone material that can be inflated, thereby taking advantage of what has typically been a very difficult material to utilize with 3D printers. The potential these objects hold to be manipulated and to shift after printing is the fourth dimension that has been added to the process, rather than an object as an end, these objects continue to develop after they are produced. Guberan, who has been collaborating with the lab since 2014, explained the interest in working with such object:
“People often ask me where the interest lies for a product designer, or if I identify more as a product designer or material researcher. For me, I see the lab and the people working there as simply having a new way of producing objects. It’s like working with future artisans, the artisans of tomorrow. As a designer, people usually expect that we turn out one design, a perfect final masterpiece—but with this technology, the outcome is much more flexible, less definite. Once it’s printed, the object has the ability to take on another life of its own.”
The objects created for this exhibition have been fitted with LED lights or have been interpreted as vases and are available to the public for prices ranging from $95 to $3,200 depending on the size and complexity of the object. The potential presented by these kinds of objects is far greater than just the production of decorative objects and well beyond the cinematic wow factor of advanced technology. The researchers at the Self-Assembly Lab see the potential for such flexibly evolving objects in everything from the future of airbags to the creation of inflatable emergency shelters. It’s the ability of these objects to continue to evolve and perform after they are created that makes them so particularly interesting, the smarter the materials get, the more our objects can do for us, becoming almost partners in problem-solving rather than just a tool to be wielded.
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