4D Printing at MIT
4D Printing at MIT

Just as people are getting used to the idea of 3D printing, researchers at MIT and Stratasys are forging into the world of 4D printing. MIT Self-Assembly Lab Director Skylar Tibbits is leading the project. In a recent interview with CNN, Tibbits gave a simple definition of 4D printing. “The idea behind 4D printing is to have change over time,” Tibbits said.

Tibbits and 4D printing gained popularity through a TED talk Tibbits gave earlier this year titled, “The emergence of 4D printing.” In the talk he went into greater detail about what 4D printing is and how it can be applied. Simply put, 4D printing is 3D printing in multiple materials but with an added characteristic. A 4D printed object has the ability to transform into something else when it interacts with the environment.     

The example Tibbits gave in the TED talk uses water as the environmental trigger. “This is another part, single strand, dipped into a bigger shark tank that self-folds into a cube, a three-dimensional structure, on its own,” explained Tibbits.

Currently Tibbits and the MIT Self-Assembly Lab are working with Stratasys’ Education and R&D departments to develop 4D printing. Stratasys’ Connex technology allows multi-material features in a single print. The different materials react to environmental stimuli, like water, differently.

The 4D object has designed geometry that harnesses the different water-absorbing properties of the various materials. This allows a 1D strand to transform into a 2D object, or a 2D plane to transform into a 3D object, when it absorbs water.    

4D printing has the potential to change the way we build structures in harsh conditions. Tibbits explains that 4D objects could also react depending on use. For example, a water pipe could increase in size when there is more water flow and decrease in size when there is less flow. In theory, the pipe could also undulate to move water without a pump.   

In addition to construction infrastructure, there are other applications of 4D printing. “There’s obviously application in fashion, and precision sports equipment and things that need to respond and be adaptive as the environment changes or as the conditions are changing,” said Tibbits. “But I think every day regular objects can also do that.”

It’s hard to imagine what the future of 4D printing holds. According to statement on the Stratasys website, “[4D printing] is truly a radical shift in our understanding of structures, which have up to this point, remained static and rigid and will soon be dynamic, adaptable and tunable for on-demand performance.” Maybe we’ll have shoes that adapt to the weather and terrain or structures that will build themselves on distant planets. And how long until 5D printing emerges?