Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Some Assembly Required

I guess I'm a 4-D printer. We all are, from humblest Sequoia to most arrogant bacterium.

The technological world has also recently made this jump. What 4-D printing can do, that conventional 3-D printers can't, is make things continue to self assemble after their manufacture.

The Internet was abuzz last week about a new idea, intriguingly dubbed “4-D printing,” emanating from the TED conference in Long Beach, California. Much of the buzz was probably a response to the sci-fi sounding name, which seems to imply that 3-D printing—itself all the rage right now—has already been supplanted as the technology most likely to take manufacturing to the next level.

In fact, the new technique still uses 3-D printing, or depositing materials layer by layer to build a custom 3-D structure. 4-D just involves using materials that help the new structure continue to assemble after it’s been printed. ... [article has a video]

I spoke to Skylar Tibbits, a member of MIT’s architecture faculty and the brains behind the video and the concept of 4-D printing, and he explained what’s going on. The small white sections, Tibbits says, are made of a proprietary material developed by Stratasys, a leading manufacturer of 3-D printers. The material, which expands to 150 times its volume when placed in water, can allow a structure to self-assemble, to some degree, after printing. It is now part of a diverse arsenal of materials printable by a line of Stratasys machines called Objet Connex. The black material is rigid, serving to constrain the shape of the object, and could be substituted for a range of different substances, from hard plastic to soft rubber. Tibbits and colleagues used newly developed software from Autodesk to determine the exact ratio and orientation of the two materials that would “program” the system to fold into a precise arrangement when placed in water. The proof-of-concept, says Tibbits, represents “a new paradigm for the way we make things.”

In principle these things don’t necessarily have to be water-activated, says Tibbits. “I’m hoping that in the future, with Stratasys, we could develop a whole line of these materials,” which could be activated by heat, water, sound, light, or pressure. I spoke to Skylar Tibbits, a member of MIT’s architecture faculty and the brains behind the video and the concept of 4-D printing, and he explained what’s going on. The small white sections, Tibbits says, are made of a proprietary material developed by Stratasys, a leading manufacturer of 3-D printers. The material, which expands to 150 times its volume when placed in water, can allow a structure to self-assemble, to some degree, after printing. It is now part of a diverse arsenal of materials printable by a line of Stratasys machines called Objet Connex. The black material is rigid, serving to constrain the shape of the object, and could be substituted for a range of different substances, from hard plastic to soft rubber.

If this sort of think seems familiar, it's because that's pretty much the way cells and other biological systems are assembled.

Meanwhile, good old 3-D printing has moved down to the 30 nanometer scale.