Earlier this morning, we unveiled what might be the future of 3-D printing. Hyperform was developed by MIT grads and designers Marcelo Coelho and Skylar Tibbits to print large objects using small desktop printers. Where orthodox 3-D-printing techniques are fundamentally limited by the size of a printer bed, Hyperform prints large objects through a process of computational folding. You might be wondering about some of the project’s practical applications and the possible uses it has for designers and architects.
But first, a recap: Hyperform maps the shape of an object and reduces it to one continuous line, then folds it according to a space-filling curve (in the first iteration’s case, a Hilbert Curve). The lines are designed as links, with specified joints and notches that connect to one another. This endless chain is packed into a dense cluster that fills the interior of the 3-D printer enclosure. Once printing has concluded, the user fishes out the polymer chains, which are encoded with assembly “instructions.” All that’s left to do is quickly piece together the object.
“The game you’re playing is what is the longest possible curve you can fit in the smallest possible volume,” Tibbits explains, referring to the system’s most consequential step. Once you’ve got that squared away, and have coded the notches at all the right points, printing can happen. Compared to most 3-D-printing projects, the assemblage process is child’s play, requiring little more than snapping together the components.
Simple enough, right? Still, the process can be overly abstract and difficult to digest. Which is why Coelho and Tibbits gave me a handful of examples to help concretize the project’s potential. Here are five things that can be designed and printed using Hyperform.
As designers, the pair wanted to find an immediate application for their new 3-D-printing system. The design also had to immediately convey the promise and freedom only Hyperform could give to users. “We wanted to show how we could make a fairly large-scale product that wouldn’t have been possible on these smaller machines,” Coelho says.
They came up with a bespoke chandelier made of only a single, interconnected 3-D-printed chain. The final product is finely wrought and detailed, thanks to the high resolution of the Formlabs Form 1 printer Coelho and Tibbits used. They expect to make further refinements to the chandelier and even envision an entire line of Hyperform products.
Read more about the chandelier’s design here.
This is a no-brainer. Coelho imagines a series of flat-pack furniture that’s a hundred times easier to assemble than current Ikea identikits. He hopes that his own knowledge of shape-changing materials and Tibbits’s experiments with 4-D printing and self-assemblage will make their way into future versions of Hyperform. When they do, Coelho says, the furniture will build themselves. “You’ll be able to order a chair or product from Ikea, and it will arrive at your door in a little box. Just plug it into the wall and it unfolds into anything you want.”
Both NASA and the European Space Agency are looking, and in some cases, actively funding 3-D printed projects aimed at potential space use. The problem with building space components is that they are limited by the size of rockets that carry them into the great beyond. The heavier the add-ons, the more expensive the rocket will be. Structures are thus economically sized and then folded to fit into a rocket’s shroud, only to be expanded once in space.
To get around this problem, Tibbits says, you’d have to send printers up into space inside the rocket hull. But you quickly run into similar problems. The size of the printer is then limited by the spacecraft’s interior dimensions. Once again: the larger the printer, the more expensive the rocket.
But you could send up smaller, cheaper printers that, using Hyperform processes, print structures that either automatically build themselves, or are pieced together by robots.
This category is a further iteration of programmable matter projects developed in the last several years at MIT, namely, Neil Gershenfeld’s Milli-Motein project. That’s understandable, given that both Coelho and Tibbits have previously collaborated with Gershenfeld and his Bits and Atoms outfit at the MIT Media Lab. By changing the makeup of an object’s nanostructure, you then change the overall shape of the object. Hyperform would allow you to define exactly how one shape transforms into another.
Right now, it’s more conceivable to apply Hyperform to temporary architectural installations that don’t necessarily have to accommodate extended or even enclosed habitation. Still, the system’s process of folding material is just crying out to be blown up to architectural and infrastructural scales. Given standard printing materials were swapped or mixed with stronger stuff, you could print out easy-to-assemble structures that significantly cut down on labor time.
Tibbits brings up the idea of skyscrapers but acknowledges that that’s a ways off. But if you wanted to 3-D print a tower, you wouldn’t, of course, print it whole, nor, depending on the complexity of the design, print it in a bajillion pieces. You’d do it using Hyperform.
The designers put across their concept most forcefully when they describe their project as a “universal strategy,” a procedure that can be applied at all scales. “You don’t even need to know what you’re building or how to build it,” Tibbits says, “because the materials have all the information built-in that you need in order to build it. The chain tells you how to build it.” That’s a relief.