The Bulletin

The next big thing: 4D printing

Posting in Design

Just as 3D printing has started to come into its own, some forward-thinking architect has just announced that he's already working on the next big thing.

It was at this year's TED conference in Long Beach that Skylar Tibbits, an MIT professor, gave attendees a sneak peak into an even more advanced manufacturing innovation he's calling 4D printing -- naturally. I know the name seems suspect because, frankly, what the heck is a 4D printed object? Well, rest assured that it's not something that exists in some hidden spatial realm (what use would we have for that?). Rather it's run-of-the-mill three dimensional printing technology, but combined with a neat enhancement that allows the parts to self-assemble and re-assemble into a myriad number of products.

The device that's used is a Stratasys 3D printer designed to produce multi-layered materials. Each part will be comprised of a regular rigid plastic layer, along with an outer layer made of "smart" materials. When submerged in water, the "smart" material absorbs and expands, causing the parts to move and form a pre-specified object.

"Essentially the printing is nothing new, it is about what happens after," Tibbits says.

The capacity for this one extra step creates a suddenly wider range of possibilities. Anything that requires intricate assembly like furniture, bikes and cars would require less manpower.

"Imagine a scenario where you go to Ikea and buy a chair, put it in your room and it self-assembles," said Carlo Olguin, principal research scientist at the software firm, told the BBC.

Now that Tibbits has demonstrated the promise, the real challenge is to eventually scale it up to where the technology actually does all these things yet wouldn't require dipping your couch into a swimming pool. Needless to say, he's currently looking for a manufacturing partner.

(via BBC)

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— By on February 28, 2013, 7:47 PM PST

Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure