3D printing is yet a new technique many of us have doubts about and cannot entirely fathom, but scientists are ready to take the process to a whole new different level: they are developing 4D printing. The technique is still theoretical and is actually a subset of 3D printing, as it uses the same equipment with one extra dimension added to the process – time.

The revolutionizing concept was revealed at this year’s TED conference by top MIT professor, computer scientist and architect Skylar Tibbits. The idea at the core of 4D printing technology is that the objects could change after being printed, for instance adjusting themselves to adapt to various environment conditions. The printed object could be designed to react to heat or moisture and change its shape without requiring any kind of human intervention.

4D Printing Creates Self-Evolving Objects

Tibbits demonstrates how 4D printing works at the TED conference

To illustrate the process, Tibbits used a straight line printed in 3D, which reassembled itself into a cube after being submerged in water. The straight line was made of standard plastic combined with a smart material. The water acted as a source of energy for the material, allowing it to expand and change shape.

Tibbits’ Self-Assembly Lab at MIT is collaborating on the project with 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys and with engineering software developer Autodesk. In the next phase, the research team will attempt to go beyond printing single strands, with the goal of eventually applying 4D printing to entire structures. The team is also looking to develop self-evolving objects that use other sources of energy besides water to fuel their transformation: heat, sound and vibration.

4D printing could have various practical applications in the future, primarily for building structures in dangerous environments inaccessible to human beings. The process could be used, for instance, to build water pipes that would contract or expand and even move the water themselves without requiring any pumping system. The same technique could also produce self-assembling furniture, cars and even more complicated robot structures for use in multiple fields of science.

[Image via TED blog]