Screenshots courtesy of researcher Skyler Tibbits via Vimeo. Modified by Curiousmatic.

4D-Printers Make Self-Assembling Objects

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Screenshots courtesy of researcher Skyler Tibbits via Vimeo. Modified by Curiousmatic.

You’ve probably heard of 3D-printing, the process with which physical objects can be printed, layer by layer, from plastic, metal, or organic material.


A new technology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and 3D-printing company Stratasys, however, prints in four dimensions: width, height, depth – and time.

It’s not as sci-fi as it sounds: the technology basically makes objects that change their shape after they’re finished, according to Stratasys.

For instance, a straight line made from the material can change into an approximate cube, as shown in this video. Another video shows the material forming the letters “MIT.”

How it works

The material doesn’t assemble by itself, however. Currently, the technology is activated when it comes in touch with water, as it consists of two kinds of material: a type of synthetic polymer that can expand twice its volume in water, and one that stays rigid in water. When the former expands, it moves the overall structure in a predetermined way.

Other ways 4D materials could be activated include light, heat, and even sound, the New York Times reports.

Applications for this technology could include objects that manufacture themselves in places where it’s hard for humans to construct things. For instance, it could be used to construct deep water equipment, or assemble objects in space.

It could also be used to make pipes that move during an earthquake, or undulates to pump water along, according to an article by Fast Company.

The technology also represents a way for businesses to take advantage of ambient sources of energy, hence reducing costs and the environmental footprint of manufacturing.

Currently, the shapes the material can form are pretty basic, so as to avoid tangling of the material. But work is underway to make the material move in more complicated ways, according to the New York Times, including reversible movements.

What uses can you think of for 4D-printing? Tweet @curiousmatic

Ole Skaar