The Brave New World of 4D Printing

Posted on April 21, 2013

Here at Fine Print we've been intrigued by how quickly 3D printing has flourished. As of today you can print everything from functioning body parts to a miniature figurine of yourself. As impressive as this may be, it appears we are just scratching the surface of what is possible with this technology.

Imagine a world where furniture and complex machinery can assemble itself. A world where a city's infrastructure composed of "intelligent" materials that can shrink or expand to meet with demands. While this may all seem like the script for a sci-fi thriller, it's a lot closer to reality thanks to the work of MIT professor Skylar Tibbits who recently gave a riveting TED talk on automated manufacturing, effectively coining the term "4D Printing".

"We are looking at the ability to programme physical and biological materials to change shape, change properties and even compute outside of silicon-based matter." - Skylar Tibbits

In terms of actual production the process is almost identical to 3D printing. The printer puts down thin layers of material to produce a 3D object. But that's where the similarity ends. 4D printing uses special materials which can respond to stimuli and produce different states. You really get a sense of awe from the audience when Tibbets presents a straight tube that assembles itself into a cube when immersed in water.

4D printing is still in its theoretical stage for now but the implications are profound. Tibbits envisions a world where manufacturing costs and danger to human lives are practically eliminated by self-assembling machines and robots. He sees the possibility of literally anything being produced by this method, whether its an engine, a vehicle or a whole building. While we aren't quite there yet, this work does indeed show some promise since Tibbets is able to produce results on a small scale.

Regardless of how much work remains to be done, you can bet this is not the last you'll hear of 4D printing. This is a real game-changer folks, and worth keeping an eye out for.

Watch the video here

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