What you may not know about 4D printing

May 1, 2013

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled the company name Stratasys as “Stratesys” with an incorrect link. This version has been corrected.

Quick: What’s the difference between 4D printing and self-assembly?

The two technological advances have become somewhat popular since MIT lecturer and TED Senior Fellow Skylar Tibbits introduced 4D printing in a February TED talk.

The technology involves 3D printing of a blended material developed by Stratesys Stratasys that, when submerged in water, transitions over time from one shape to another. Tibbits describes the process as “self-reconfiguration.”

“Our products and materials and systems that we interact in the future will adapt to how we use them or adapt to how the environment around them changes,” said Tibbits during a phone interview. Tibbits launched the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT.

He has released two videos illustrating the process. In one, a black strand forms the letters “MIT,” while in another a similar black strand forms a cube.

Earlier this week, Tibbits released a video showing a flat surface that, when submerged in water, folds into a cube:

But, during his February talk, Tibbits also referred to self-assembly, or what happens when seemingly disconnected parts assemble into an ordered shape when they come in contact with one another. Tibbits and collaborator, molecular biologist, Arthur Olson at the Scripps Research Institute, modeled the technology at TED Long Beach in 2012.

“Somehow people are kind of combining the two worlds,” said Tibbits during a phone interview. “I think it’s just a misunderstanding that they think that we print stuff, and then it floats around, and then it comes together.”

But distinctions aside, Tibbits is concerned about getting people excited about the possibilities.

He says he regrets, in his earlier talks, not getting people excited about “what this could mean and have them proposing new applications that I had never thought of. That’s really what we need.”

Read more about the future of manufacturing in Wednesday’s special report from Washington Post Live, including more on 4D printing. And let us know in the comments what you could imagine using 4D printing for.


An image of the various stages of a 4D printed objects self-reconfiguration. (Self-Assembly Lab, MIT & Stratasys)

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Emi Kolawole | May 1, 2013