3-D printing, with its potential for near-limitless flexibility, speed, and cost-savings has captured the imagination of designers and manufacturers alike. But what if a designer could program his or her object to keep evolving once it was out of the printer? What if it could assemble itself into something quite different in response to a jolt of outside energy—or, better yet, from certain environmental triggers?
That's the brave new world of 4-D printing—which has the potential to upend manufacturing as we know it.
Researchers at Stratasys, the Minneapolis-based 3-D printing firm that recently merged with Israel-based Objet, have recently developed a new, programmable material that may pave the way to making this next leap in innovation a reality. Their proprietary material (so new it doesn’t even have a name, outside of internal technical code) not only lets designers create cool new objects, but will enable them to teach their artifacts to dance—or at least self-assemble on command.
The company’s education department is providing academic researchers like MIT’s Skylar Tibbits with material that has the ability to be programmed down to the various particles of the design. The qualities that can be coded include color, transparency, stiffness, and flexibility. But Stratasys's newest breakthrough is to add water absorption to that list of traits.
And that element has the ability to change the game dramatically.
Using the firm’s sophisticated Objet Connex 3-D printers, researchers can now combine a variety of materials—rubber, plastics, etc. with the new water-absorbable one—and code them, optimally via dedicated software simulators like Autodesk’s Cyborg tool or the VoxCad simulator, to behave a certain way. Then they can print them out, and test how they respond to various environmental triggers.
Tibbits’s research, for example, is focusing on how the material changes when it’s dunked in a tank, or sprayed, with the goal of self-assembly. While the experiments currently are fun to watch, as strands squirm their way into the shape he’s coded them to form, the implications are more than just a parlor trick. Potentially, the material may open the way to a new, low-energy, method of manufacturing.
"Generally speaking, to activate self-assembly you always need to use a source of energy, like mechanical energy," says Shelly Linor, Stratasys’s director of global education.
"What is interesting about Skylar’s project is that the energy comes from water absorption and that opens a path to environmental manufacturing, creating geometries that can change when exposed to different environmental conditions—in this case , water or humidity," she says.
Linor says the material was developed only for research purposes and is not yet available commercially.