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The future unfolding: Fellows Friday with Skylar Tibbits

  Posted by Karen Eng


Skylar Tibbits makes things that assemble themselves, with potential large-scale applications from self-adjusting water pipes to self-assembling structures in space. At his recently founded Self-Assembly Lab at MIT, he’s pioneering 4D printing — using smart materials to make objects that change shape and evolve. Here, he explains how 4D printing works, and describes his journey from architect to artist to leading inventor of self-assembly technology.

Why is this process called 4D printing?

The reason we call it 4D is because the object changes over time. So whereas 3D printing simply creates an object,Skylar Tibbits: The emergence of "4D printing" the 4D-printed object is printed using smart materials that are activated by various sources — like heat, water, current, sound, pressure, and so on.

Objects are printed with the multi-material printer using a combination of smart material and standard 3D printing material — currently, Stratasys’ Connex highly precise multi-material 3D printers can print two materials — in whatever shape you want. Then when you activate the object, it changes: swells or contracts or moves.

Right now the material we’re using is a polymer-based water-absorbing material that expands 150%. For the non-4D material, Stratasys has a whole line, everything from soft rubber to plastic. Right now we use their hard black plastic, just a standard plastic material, alongside the 4D material as the activator.

So the expanding material does one thing and the rigid material holds the shape, is that right?

Right. The rigid material gives it structure and constraints. If you have two pieces and you want them to fold, how do you make it go the right direction? That way or another way? Well, you put a very thin piece of rigid material on the side you want to fold. So that means that the expanding material is going to expand, and that super thin material is going to bend. And so this basically creates a force. But then the question is, how do you make it so that the bend stops at the correct angle? So you add rigid limiters. You also use the lengths of the segments to achieve the shape you want. The rigid material is the code, and the expanding material is the energy.

It’s just become a really elegant process from start to finish, where my hands are out of it the whole time. I build intent, but the object is manufactured as a streamlined piece. You dip it in water and it goes by itself.

Video above: A demonstration of 4D Printing, the “MIT” self-folding strand in action.

The first time you saw the test object fold by itself in water, were you incredibly excited?

I had one surprising moment. I set it in water, and I had my camera set up doing a time-lapse — the process is so slow you can’t see it moving in real time. A few hours later I came back and it was folded. And I thought, “Oh, cool. It folded. It works.” But then I looked at the time-lapse and went, “Whoa!” — because it looks like a live worm. It’s not just click, click — MIT. It takes weird dynamic forms to get there. So that was cool.

How did you originally connect with Stratasys?

It’s actually a funny story. I was at a coffee shop, in Cambridge, right across from MIT, and the person across from me had a shirt on that said Objet — the 3D printing company that later merged with and became Stratasys. We started talking, and I introduced her to the department of architecture at MIT. I showed her the work I’m doing, saying, “I wish there was a way we could print this stuff so that we could embed the energy directly into it.” She connected me with their materials science division, which was developing this material that expands in water. Together we realized this wasn’t just a weird material that we don’t know what to do with, but a new paradigm for what you can print.

You are the only person working on designs for this material and this particular process. So do you get all the credit for 4D?

Well, Stratasys developed the materials and the machine, so this wouldn’t be possible without them. I had the vision of how this would be a real change in the game of 3D printing. This only became a reality once we produced the prototypes and demonstrated that it is possible. But I think 4D printing is something that in the future anyone can do. If the materials were on the market, everyone would be 4D printing tomorrow.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>


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