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Many are only just getting their heads around the idea of 3D printing but scientists at MIT are already working on an upgrade – 4D printing. At the TED conference in Los Angeles, architect and computer scientist Skylar Tibbits showed how the process allows objects to self assemble. It could be used to install and assemble objects in hard to reach places such as underground water pipes, he suggested and it might also herald an age of self assembling robots and furniture


Materials get Smart

TED fellow Mr Tibbits, from the MIT’s self assembly lab explained what the extra dimension involved.

“We’re proposing that the fourth dimension is time and that over time static objects will transform and adapt.” he said.

The process uses a specialised 3D printer made by Stratasys that can create multi layered materials. It combines a strand of standard plastic with a layer made from a “Smart” material that can absorb water. The water acts as an energy source for the material to expand once it is printed.

“The rigid material becomes a structure and the other layer is the force that can start bending and twisting it,” said Mr Tibbits,” essentially the printing is nothing new, it is about what happens after,” he added.

Such a process could in future be used to build furniture, bikes, cars, buildings and even space stations but for the time being he is seeking a manufacturing partner to explore the innovation.

“We are looking for applications and products that wouldn’t be possible without these materials, imagine water pipes that can expand to cope with different capacities or flows and save digging up the street.”

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Inspired by nature

Engineering software developer Autodesk which collaborated on the project is looking even further into the future.

“Imagine a scenario where you go to Ikea and buy a chair, put it in your room and it self assembles,” said Carlo Olguin principal research scientist at the software firm.

The 4D printing concept draws inspiration from nature which already has the ability to self replicate.

“We already have 3D printers that can be injected with stem cells to print slices of liver,” Mr Olguin added.

“The idea behind 4D printing is to use the sheer power of biology and modify it. But it is still an elusive goal.”

The next stage for the research is to move from printing single strands to sheets and eventually whole structures and water need not be the process’s only energy source.

“We could also have heat, vibration and sound,” said Mr Tibbits.

About author

Matthew Griffin

Matthew Griffin, award winning Futurist and Founder of the 311 Institute is described as "The Adviser behind the Advisers." Recognised for the past five years as one of the world's foremost futurists, innovation and strategy experts Matthew is an author, entrepreneur international speaker who helps investors, multi-nationals, regulators and sovereign governments around the world envision, build and lead the future. Today, asides from being a member of Centrica's prestigious Technology and Innovation Committee and mentoring XPrize teams, Matthew's accomplishments, among others, include playing the lead role in helping the world's largest smartphone manufacturers ideate the next five generations of mobile devices, and what comes beyond, and helping the world's largest high tech semiconductor manufacturers envision the next twenty years of intelligent machines. Matthew's clients include Accenture, Bain & Co, Bank of America, Blackrock, Bloomberg, Booz Allen Hamilton, Boston Consulting Group, Dell EMC, Dentons, Deloitte, Deutsche Bank, Du Pont, E&Y, Fidelity, Goldman Sachs, HPE, Huawei, JP Morgan Chase, KPMG, Lloyds Banking Group, McKinsey & Co, Monsanto, PWC, Qualcomm, Rolls Royce, SAP, Samsung, Schroeder's, Sequoia Capital, Sopra Steria, UBS, the UK's HM Treasury, the USAF and many others.

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