4D Printing Shapeshifting Architecture Technology

The method is a form of what the scientific community calls 4D printing, in which a 3D printed structure changes shape after a print.

“This work represents an elegant advance in programmable materials assembly, made possible by a multidisciplinary approach,” said Jennifer Lewis, senior author on the new study. “We have now gone beyond integrating form and function to create transformable architectures.”

Shape-shifting ‘4D’ printed objects could pave the way for outer space structures: The method is a form of what the scientific community calls 4D printing, in which a 3D printed structure changes shape after a print. The fourth dimension here being time. It’s something of an industry buzzword of late, but it applies pretty well here. Like similar research by teams at schools like MIT, the Georgia Tech team’s work relies on temperature changes to start the transformation. Where the research differentiates itself from most is its use of tensegrity, a system in which floating solid roads are held together by cables. The systems are light, strong and easily collapsed, making them ideal for space travel.

4D Printing and the Designed Environment: Innovators in the 3D printing space are taking on the fourth dimension, time. The researchers at Harvard University announced the development of a new, bio-inspired 4D-printing method to create objects that respond to environmental triggers much like plants. Four-dimensional printing is an intriguing fabrication method that has gained traction since MIT research scientist Skylar Tibbits helped to popularize the term in his TED talk. In its most basic form, the process requires the combination of a smart material and a source of energy for its activation. For example, a long strand of material, like plastic, can transform into a predetermined shape, such as a cube, when submerged in water or heated.

Following Tibbits, researchers at institutions including the University of Colorado Boulder, the Singapore University of Technology and Design, and now Harvard have developed their own approaches to 4D printing. Their research is evidence that the still-nascent technology is moving closer, albeit slowly, to finding commercial application, with a noticeable shift in the nature of its output from frame-like, geometric constructions to fluid, organic forms. As intriguing as the idea of integrating time into the 3D-printing equation may be, however, it’s important to ask whether this technology is relevant to today’s design processes and, if so, how. Below, I describe three of the most promising 4D-printing methodologies developed to date, and their likely impact on the designed environment.