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Future of 4-D printing takes shape at MIT Crossroads 2014

Attendees at the MIT Crossroads 2014 conference learned that self-assembly through 4-D printing could forever change the face of manufacturing.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has long been synonymous with innovation. At the 2014 Crossroads conference, that tradition continued as MIT professors led sessions on some truly next-generation technology. Out of all the day's topics, four-dimensional printing -- a term that refers to printed materials that can change form or self-assemble -- perhaps sounded the most futuristic of all. But according to Skylar Tibbits, director of the MIT Self-Assembly Lab, the future is now.

Tibbits founded the Self-Assembly Lab a year ago to further research around self-assembling and programmable material technologies that hold the potential to quite literally reshape the ways construction, manufacturing and product assembly are achieved.

Any person can pick this up and have no idea what this is or what it's supposed to do and still precisely assemble this structure by supplying random energy.

Skylar Tibbits,
director, MIT Self-Assembly Lab

"Computation revolutionized design and digital fabrication is arguing that computation can revolutionize the way we fabricate things," he said. "It's changing what we can make, while software is changing what we can design."

Beyond 3-D printing

While digital fabrication -- also known as three-dimensional printing -- allows for a new "freedom of complexity," Tibbits pointed out that it doesn't necessarily equal more freedom of time. Pieces printed in 3-D still need to be assembled, either by person or by machine, and that can take hours or even days depending on the size and intricateness of the final product. This time issue is something that can potentially be solved by 4-D printing, especially in the realms of manufacturing and product assembly -- what Tibbits calls the "macro-scale world."

"If you look at other people [who] are interested in self-assembly, reconfiguration and programmable materials, most of that is happening at biomedical, material science, and maybe robotics applications," he said. "What we're trying to argue is that there is a huge opportunity in the macro-scale world to rethink the way we assemble things and rethink the way that materials can interact with their environment and the user."

Keeping assembly simple with 4-D printing

In a video example, Tibbits showed a flask full of small shards of materials. When an energy catalyst is introduced -- in this case, someone shaking the flask -- the shards are drawn to one another to form a perfect sphere. When the shards come together in the "correct" way, Tibbits explained, the bonds formed between them are stronger and therefore last, while the weaker bonds -- incorrect assembly -- easily fall apart. It's through this rapid trial and error that a shape is formed.

In a way, self-assembly cuts out the need for directions or prior skills.

"Any person can pick this up and have no idea what this is or what it's supposed to do and still precisely assemble this structure by supplying random energy," Tibbits said.

Tibbits noted that the catalyst that triggers a material to self-assemble can be any number of things beyond kinetic energy -- heat, cold, moisture and magnetism, to name a few.

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"You need to lock in your materials," he explained. "If you want to use metal, you may want to use a thermal polymer. But if you need to use wood, you want to use an energy that wood can respond to, like moisture. We use these ingredients and dial in the system so that you can get active transformation."

Besides the manufacturing time and manpower that can potentially be saved by 4-D printing, there are transportation benefits as well, Tibbits pointed out. If an item can start out flat and then self-assemble when it arrived to the customer, then more of those items can be shipped in the same container, saving both space and money on the logistics end of a manufacturing operation.

"You can produce these super minimal structures and then activate them later so that they become complex three-dimensional shapes far more easily than if you produced them that way and then shipped that structure," Tibbits said. "It takes advantage of the transformation to assemble on-site or in a certain environment when triggered."

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