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4-D Printing = Building Things That Build Themselves

3D printing has caused quite a stir because the groundbreaking device is able to build anything from prosthetic hands to action figures. Using different kinds of ink, printers are able to create a myriad of tools and even everyday objects. The technology has made headlines throughout the world but a group of engineers is taking the technology a step further, building printing objects that can build themselves. The technology being developed is called 4D printing and it works by using a 3D printer with an extremely high resolution. The printer utilizes materials that respond to outside stimuli such as light or heat as ink.

The result is a structure, which can mold, move or even assemble itself after it has been printed.
A team of researchers headed by Associate Professor, H. Jerry Qi of Colorado Boulder is using head and mechanical pressure to turn flat objects into three-dimensional structures. The technology utilizes a printed unfolded box and glassy polymer fibers – a composite material that has “shape memory behavior,” are heated pulled on the sides and cooled. The flat object then responded by folding into a box.

Other researchers have explored how adaptive materials work and respond to outside stimuli. Professor Anna Balazs at Pittsburgh likens the adaptive materials to how the human body works, how our own bodies respond to outside stimuli on their own.

Development of the 4D printing technology could lead to a variety of incredible innovations such as fabrics that change colors according to weather conditions or as protective layers in the presence of toxic chemicals, an innovation which could be useful for soldiers in combat. According to professor Qi, the technology could also allow us to create instruments that are small and flat and expand when aboard a spacecraft.

Skylar Tibbits, a self-assembly researcher at MIT is also exploring possibilities of materials which responds to shaking or to sound. His vision may be ambitious but as more and more scientists are discovering different ways to develop the technology for 4D printing, his idea may not seem too far off.

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