Printing With Science In The Fourth Dimension
October 16, 2013

Printing With Science In The Fourth Dimension

“Some assembly required.” I do not know about you, but seeing these words on something I have just purchased always fills me with dread. It might as well just read, “No, what you have here will not look like what you saw on the sales floor,” or “good luck, have fun.” Only I do not. I never have any fun assembling desks or bookcases or whatever else I have that has had those terrible words written upon them. No, I am not much of a handy man when it comes to building things. I love Lego, but that is about as far as my engineering skills have ever taken me.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the wonders of 3D Printing and, more specifically, the successful Kickstarter of the Form 1. As incredible as it is to be able to create fully three-dimensional models from nothing more than a design, science has already gone a step further than that. Enter fourth-dimensional printing. That is right, 4D Printing. Fourth-dimensional printing is similar to three-dimensional printing in that it creates a fully three-dimensional – not flat – product, but where it differs is in the ability to self-construct. Fourth-dimensional printed objects have the ability to change their form via exposure to a specified catalyst, usually water. This new and groundbreaking technology has been developed by Stratasys’ Education, various research and development departments, and MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab. This research has allowed them to create objects using 3D printing that can then change their form, usually from a one-dimensional shape into a three-dimensional shape or from one three-dimensional shape into another as shown here.

This is done by using the water-absorbing properties of various types of materials and getting them to work in a synchronized fashion. With this, various properties can be programmed into a single object, giving it a variety of form-changing possibilities. Thus far, most of what has been accomplished has been simple changes in form, such as turning a length of cord into a cube shape, but these are only the first steps into where this new technology might take us.

Notably, this technology is still new and therefore will likely not be widely available for quite some time. We are still on the ground floor of this new innovation that may one day lead us to the creation of highly versatile and dynamic systems that are able to respond to our needs with incredibly fluidity. Already this is causing a radical shift in our perception of structure, where once we saw something rigid and unchanging, we are now able to envision something more malleable. As for me, I may have a rather simplistic view of things, but I look forward to the day that instead of reading labels that say “some assembly required,” the only instructions I will have to follow to put together that new bookshelf will be “just add water.”

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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