A 4D printing process is demoed at TED which could herald an age of self-assembled objects say experts.
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 objects in hard-to-reach places such as underground water pipes, he suggested. It might also herald an age of self-assembling furniture, said experts.
TED fellow Mr Tibbits, from the MIT's (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) 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."
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 and even buildings, he thinks.
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," he added. "Imagine water pipes that can expand to cope with different capacities or flows and save digging up the street."