Self-Assembling Objects: Welcome to the Future of 3D Printing

I speak and write (last post) about 3D printing fairly regularly for two reasons: 1) research labs are churning out a steady stream of reports on new applications for 3D printing, and 2) along with the Internet of Things, 3D printing is reorganizing our economy in a profound way. Unfortunately, too few organizations have adjusted their 5- and 10-year outlook to accommodate the twin impact of IoT and 3D printing on their business, by which time we should be seeing them more in use. You can count on me to keep beating the drum in the meantime.

But what happens when 3D printing and IoT collide?  The technology takes on a new dimension -- a 4th one.

When 3D printing and IoT collide — an object is printed with intelligent sensors embedded —which allows it to assemble itself. It’s something like printing a piece of origami paper with embedded sensors that, through a series of self-directed folds, turns into a beautiful swan. This technology is called 4D Printing, and the capability is self-assembly.

The big idea is to create objects that can change after they are printed, making them self-adapting. The act of printing is no longer the end of the creative process but merely a waypoint.
— Ryan Tate, Wired UK

Self-assembly of long-chain amino acids are how proteins are made in the body. The 4D field of research has been studying this phenomenon to mimic the same capability in other materials (this application is, in fact, known as biomimcry, “a new science that studies nature's models and then uses these designs and processes to solve human problems.”) Now this approach is being applied to the kinds of everyday products we’ll soon be producing with 3D printers.

A leading researcher in this field is Skylar Tibbits, a “computational architect” and researcher at MIT’s architecture department. Tibbits created something called SJET LLC, a platform for experimental computation, which is precisely how 4D printing came to be. 

The benefits of something like this are virtually limitless. This Business Insider article notes that this could be especially useful in medical situations in which the 4D structure could be implanted into a heart, for example, and could then assemble itself. The impact this type of technology could have on faraway villages or impoverished nations is undeniable.

I can imagine far more mundane applications too, such as — imagine this! — IKEA furniture that assembles itself. You could simply download a 3D printing file from IKEA’s website, send it to your printer, print it out and watch as it assembles itself before your eyes.

This is a very new concept but I predict it will blow up quickly!