science | July 11, 2013

Buildings That Build Themselves: Skylar Tibbits On 4D Self-Assembly

Put down your hammer and nails because 4D printing may render these tools useless in the future. Skylar Tibbits, a speaker on 4D printing technology, is experimenting with materials that put themselves together. Instead of drills and saws, these new structures rely on exposure to heat, sound, and movement to transform. "Maybe [in] the construction sites of the future," Tibbits imagines in a BBC profile, "we play Beethoven and the structures build themselves." He admits we're not quite at that stage just yet. But, he does see a great deal of potential for practical applications of the technology even today.

Using a 4D printing process (where the 4th dimension stands for "time"), Tibbits constructs materials that act like robots without the wires or the motors. They are taken off the printing press and respond to the environment around them; changing shape and form, replicating, or changing properties. Today, we "build static, fixed-capacity things like fixed water pipes that have expensive pumps and valves," Tibbits explains. "If anything changes—if temperature changes, if demand changes—you have to dig them up or you have to replace these expensive components." Instead Tibbits says, we need a more adaptive and resilient piping system that can change its form on demand. "We need to have the nanotech revolution for all of the problems we have in the built environment," he concludes. In his talks Tibbits shows us that despite only being in the prototype phases today, 4D printing can one day change the world we live in.

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authors | July 10, 2013