Update: 4D Printing Self-Assembling Shapes In Carbon Composites, Wood

The first time I wrote about MIT's Skylar Tibbits and what he calls 4D printing, I refused to use that term. It seemed pretentious and, well, dishonest. Self-assembly meets 3D printing was more accurate. But since then, Tibbits' team in MIT's Self-Assembly Lab has been busy: now they're 4D printing self-assembling shapes made of programmable carbon composites and custom wood grain.

The early descriptions and demos of 4D printing last year were vague and theoretical: a crudely shaped 3D-printed plastic object using a Stratasys Objet Connex 500 Multi Materials 3D printer that self-assembled underwater. OK, cool tech, cool concept, but so what that it unfolds over time? What does any of this have to do with actual manufacturing and engineering problems?

With a materials change and partnerships with big automotive and aircraft companies like Airbus and Briggs Automotive Company, the answer now is: a lot. In the project with Briggs, a UK-based high-end sports car maker, the Self-Assembly Lab also partnered with Autodesk and Carbitex, a maker of carbon composites that remain flexible after curing. Using programmable carbon composites, they've designed a morphing car airfoil that operates non-mechanically.

Watch the airfoil in operation:

According to an article in MIT Technology Review, Airbus is interested in similar programmable carbon fiber composites. Components and structures made of them could change shape in response to different environmental changes in temperature, air pressure, or other factors. They could replace hinges, or even motors and hydraulic actuators, making planes simpler and lighter in weight. Carbitex's materials have various flexibility characteristics, such as floppy versus springy. Added to these by the 3D printer are materials that change these flexible composites in specific ways in response to heat, light, or water. The Self-Assembly Lab team is developing software to simulate how these shape-changing materials will behave when printed onto different types of flexible composite materials. Interestingly, Airbus mentions "morphing materials," as well as 3D printing, as a future technology that could be used in the Concept Cabin of its Concept Plane.

Click the image below to view a slideshow.

Last year, we also told you about University of Colorado Boulder researchers who combined the idea of 4D printing with making shape-memory composites on the same Objet Connex multi-materials 3D printer. That team incorporated shape memory polymer fibers into a matrix of the 3D printer's composite multi-materials. They then 3D printed an object in one shape, and the object changed its shape later, such as self-assembling from a flat piece into a cube. The team designed and printed flat laminate materials thermomechanically programmed to form a variety of complex, three-dimensional shapes. When the material is heated again, these assembled shapes can return to the form of flat sheets. Shapes and behavior are determined by fiber architecture specified within a CAD file.

The other major project Tibbits' team has achieved is 4D printing programmable wood. The Self-Assembly Lab partnered with Autodesk, Christophe Guberan, and Erik Demaine, to design and print custom wood grain that changes shape when it contacts moisture. The team worked with several different grain directions, thicknesses, and combinations of materials. Some of the closeups of wood grain are as finely executed as the highest quality of 3D-printed wood we showed you in our slideshow last spring.

Watch the programmable wood self-transform:

In the future, additional programmable materials may include 4D-printed custom textile composites, and various plastics and rubber.

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