Recent developments in the way of what MIT research scientist Skylar Tibbits is calling 4D printing have been announced. Because 3D printers are readily available and are increasingly well-understood by the general public, it must be time for something bigger and better. The fourth dimension is a dynamic component that creates a changing structure over time. We are now seeing a possibility that the futuristic wonderland Marty McFly introduced us to may not be far from materialization.
At a 2013 TED conference, Tibbits first presented his idea of “programmable materials that build themselves.” He demonstrated how, with today’s rapidly advancing nanotechnologies, we can “program physical and biological materials to change shape, change properties and even compute outside of silicon-based matter.” The impact that this could have on development at the human scale is vast; and ideas from increasingly diverse industries is just what Tibbits needs in order to keep his Self-Assembly Lab at MIT running at full speed.
Articles released by Wired and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) over the past two weeks have shown us just where those ideas, in combination with Tibbits’ team’s expertise, can take us. 4D printing uses meticulously constructed layers of material – nearly any material will do – with programmed design to alter their shape using passive energies. Carbitex, a company specializing in the production of flexible carbon fiber, has begun work with printed materials on the fibers that make the fully cured carbon active and reactive to certain energy. Applications in automotive, aerospace, and athletic industries (self-lacing Nikes?) are already in the works, and it is apparent that where we are going, we don’t need complex, expensive, and cumbersome electrical systems to control robotic movement.