3-D printing is old hat: it's time for 4-D

Perhaps Yogi Berra might say of 3-D printing, “Nobody does that anymore—it's too popular.” If that's the case, it's time to move on to “self assembly” and 4-D printing. Computer scientist and architect Skylar Tibbits, who runs the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT, describes the concepts in an interview with Michael Reilly of New Scientist by way of Slate.

Tibbits describes self assembly with regard to a model of a polio virus built in conjunction with the Scripps Research Institute: “If you put the pieces of the model in a glass container, they just sit there. But when you impart some energy—shake the glass—they come together. Shake harder, and it comes apart again.” The level of self-assembly depends on the energy imparted to the system.

Tibbits describes 3-D printing as static—to build complex devices, you need to print individual fixed components and then assemble them. He explains, “We thought, instead of assembling intelligence into it afterwards, why not print intelligence into it?” He describes work with Stratasys on materials that expand on contact with water—one prototype involved the 3-D printing of a cube that when submerged folded itself into a cube.

But old-fashioned 3-D printing, and whatever we call the manufacturing processes that preceded it, may have some life left. “Since the Industrial Revolution,” Tibbits said, “we have become really good at making things at the human scale, from cars to clothes to consumer electronics.” With self-assembly and multidimensional printing, he says, “We won't try to beat those manufacturing processes. Instead, we will look to outlying scenarios: disaster relief, and areas where we can't build today because it's too expensive, dangerous, or hard to get to. We are looking at space construction, infrastructure repair and control systems, smarter consumer products, and U.S. manufacturing opportunities that historically have been outsourced.”

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