When a piece of technology can produce architectural models, entire meals or effectively recreate facial features it becomes hard to imagine how we can surpass this. Since the late 1970’s 3D printing has been part of modern research endeavours, but Skylar Tibbits believes we can triumph this technology in the form of 4D printing.
This promising technology is essentially a 3D printer used to print self reconfiguring, programmable material. Tibbits proposes feeding the printer a precise geometric code computing not only exact angles and dimensions of an object but also measurements that dictate how it changes under water, in changing temperature or in the application of kinetic energy. This is not necessarily a new idea, scientists have already been able to program physical and biological materials to change their properties as well as their shapes with the advances in nanotechnology; but what is exciting is the human scale applications the advancement in 4D printing can provide.
Traditionally the construction and manufacturing industries have produced complex things made by complex parts in complex ways. So how can 4D printing begin to change this production process? Tibbits has proposed new pipe infrastructure. Imagine water pipes that can undulate to push water through, expand and contract to accommodate varying water demands and self repair when a leak occurs. 4D printing can achieve this. He also explores the ability to build in extreme environments, such as post disaster relief, completely remote areas and even space; closer to home the applications range from simple objects, to furniture, to building parts. Smart building components such as smart bricks and smart beams are a possibility with building materials being programmed to repair themselves in the presence of water damage or change shape and configuration to accommodate different stresses. It has been proposed that under extreme kinetic energy such as an earthquake smart building components can change their shape to accommodate the stress and reform once the energy is removed.
But what about this notion of no assembly required? In China they’ve managed to 3D print 10 one storey houses in 24 hours out of quick drying cement. This is cool and just one example of how 3D printing is revolutionising the building industry and making environmentally friendly and cost effective 1:1 structures. But these structures are rigid and need to be printed on site to be effective. It would be interesting to see how the emergence of 4D printing would affect this prototype. Perhaps one day building a house would be as simple as printing a flat pack kit, driving it to site and just adding vibration. No assembly required.