3-D printing has already triggered a revolution in manufacturing by allowing people to determine the length, width and depth of an object that they want to create. But thanks to research being conducted at the University of Colorado, Boulder, a fourth dimension can now be included – time. Might sounds like science fiction, until you realize that the new manufacturing process will make it possible to print objects that change their shape at a given time.
Led by Prof. H. Jerry Qi, the scientific team have developed a “4D printing” process in which shape-memory polymer fibers are deposited in key areas of a composite material item as it’s being printed. By carefully controlling factors such as the location and orientation of the fibers, those areas of the item will fold, stretch, curl or twist in a predictable fashion when exposed to a stimulus such as water, heat or mechanical pressure.
The concept was proposed earlier this year by MIT’s Skylar Tibbits, who used his own 4D printing process to create a variety of small self-assembling objects. Martin L. Dunn of the Singapore University of Technology and Design, who collaborated with Qi on the latest research, explained the process:
We advanced this concept by creating composite materials that can morph into several different, complicated shapes based on a different physical mechanism.
This means that one 4D-printed object could change shape in different ways, depending on the type of stimulus to which it was exposed. That functionality could make it possible to print a photovoltaic panel in a flat shape, expose it to water to cause it to fold up for shipping, and then expose it to heat to make it fold out to yet another shape that’s optimal for catching sunlight.
This principle may sound familiar, as it is the basis of such sci-fi concepts as polymorphic alloys or objects. It’s also the idea behind the Milli-Motein, the shape-shifting machine invented by MITs Media Labs late last year. But ultimately, it all comes back to organic biology, using structural biochemistry and the protein cell as a blueprint to create machinery made of “smart” materials.
The building block of all life, proteins can assume an untold number of shapes to fulfill an organism’s various functions, and are the universal workforce to all of life. By combining that concept with the world of robotics and manufactured products, we could be embarking upon an era of matter and products that can assume different shapes as needed and on command.
And if these materials can be scaled to the microscopic level, and equipped with tiny computers, the range of functions they will be able to do will truly stagger the mind. Imagine furniture made from materials that can automatically respond to changes in pressure and weight distribution. Or paper that is capable of absorbing your pencil scratches and then storing it in its memory, or calling up image displays like a laptop computer?
And let’s not forget how intrinsic this is to the field of nanotechnology. Smarter, more independent materials that can change shape and respond to changes in their environment, mainly so they can handle different tasks, is all part of the Fabrication Revolution that is expected to explode this century. Here’s hoping I’m alive to see it all. Sheldon Cooper isn’t the only one waiting on the Technological Singularity!