3D printing has risen in popularity ever since RepRap introduced their ‘Darwin’ model for the consumer market back in 2007. They’re excellent for fast prototyping and manufacturing just about anything we can imagine and don’t require remortgaging the house to own one. Not satisfied with simply creating objects quickly, a team of engineers, led by Skylar Tibbits, from the MIT Self-Assembly Lab (along with Stratasys) have taken the idea of 3D printing to the next level with 4D which allows the objects created to assemble themselves over a period of time. To get their objects (simple shapes at this point) to assemble themselves the computer engineers used standard (unknown at this time) plastic they combined with ‘smart’ material that transforms and expands when subjected to water. According to Tibbits, the rigid plastic material forms the structure while the other layer becomes the force behind the materials manipulation. The team used Autodesk’s Cyborg (modeling, simulation and multi-objective design platform) software to create their design (in this case a snake-like tube that transforms into a cube). The software supplied the team with the ability to simulate how their object could transform and provided them with design optimizations (joint folding, etc.) once the shape was decided upon. Any changes can be made directly through the software negating the need for multiple prototypes for a single design. Once the design was completed, the team then piped the composite hybrid material through a Stratysys Objet Connex 3D printer that was modified to accept the new material and printed out the design 1 layer at a time. The team states that their process of creating self-assembling objects could be applied to building furniture, bicycles, cars and even houses sometime in the future. Water pipes designed using this process could expand and contract depending on temperature or water-flow needs without digging in the ground or cutting into walls. Combine their composite material with self-healing elastomers and you could conceivably have a water system that would never need servicing. The possibilities are endless and chances are we can expect more developments using this technology over the next decade.



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