It follows that with a domain name like 3Dprinter.net that we disseminate information relating to 3D printing, but we’re not going to let the name of the site stop us from keeping with the times. 3D printing came after 2D printing, so where will printing go from here? 4D printing, naturally.
While working in the fourth dimension is often associated with manipulating time, you don’t need a flux capacitor for 4D printing. What 4D printing is about is self assembly — materials whose geometries are designed in a way to convert energy into form, and that energy doesn’t have to be specifically directed at making the form come about as with most manufacturing methodologies, like a robotic arm precisely positioning components to be followed by another specific weld job. Rather, with 4D printing, objects can assemble themselves with indirect energy and inputs, such as heat, moisture, motion, and electromagnetism. So for example, the pieces that make up a pair of headphones could be shipped to you as a few flat pieces in a normal envelope, and you just toss them in a box, give ‘em a quick Shake ‘n Bake jostle, and Alakazam you’ve got a new pair of headphones that required no Chinese child labor or expensive shipping fees.
Pursuing this novel technology is, of course, MIT and its Self-Assembly Lab directed by Skylar Tibbits, an architect, artist, and computer scientist. Skylar explains that “The work really tries to traverse all scale lengths, it tries to work from the nanoscale which is traditionally where we see self-assembly in biological examples, chemical examples, and it tries to bridge that and say ‘can’t we use this phenomenon of self-assembly as a new paradigm for building things at large scale.’” In chemistry and biology, molecules and cells don’t require agents to tell them how to arrange themselves; their structures are such that they simply react to their surroundings and circumstances. The Education and R&D Departments of Stratasys are working with MIT to explore self-assembly with their multi-material Connex technology, 3D printing “smart” materials that can take specific shapes by being exposed to non-specific stimulations.
This will likely be as revolutionary as 3D printing itself. In the future, if you’re not already 3D printing your furniture, then your IKEA coffee table will literally assemble itself as you dump the pieces out of the box onto the floor. Your solar array will build itself at first light. Your dog will build its doghouse by nudging it around with its nose. Truly, we’ll be able to say once and for all “I don’t need the directions!”