science | September 19, 2013

From 3D to 4D: How Science Speaker Skylar Tibbits Is Printing The Future

Science speaker Skylar Tibbits wants you to imagine a world where regular shoes become running shoes once the wearer starts sprinting; where they transform into cleats when walking onto a patch of grass. A world where objects can emerge from a 3D printer in one form, and transform into another right before your eyes. And, the transformation takes place all on its own. Welcome to the world of 4D printing and self-assembly—a world being ushered in by Tibbits and his team at the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT.

"We called it 4D printing because instead of just printing 3D objects that are fixed—fixed properties, fixed shapes—we add that element of time," he says in a Fast Company article, "so that they can transform over time and they can adapt." For example, Tibbits shows us how a material that swells 150 degrees when it meets water can transform from a one dimension strand into a three dimensional cube. Or, into the letters "M I T." This transformation takes place without the use of sensors or robotics. The technology has practical applications beyond the lab as well: "Aerospace, automotive, the marine industry, water pipes, the oil and gas sector, disaster relief, quickly deployable structures," all have the ability to be transformed thanks to Tibbit's work. "Reducing energy, reducing errors, and having more adaptive products, that really changes how we make things and how we interact with things."

Tibbits is also working on a project geared toward solving one of the biggest challenges in 3D printing today: Printing large-scale objects on a small-scale printer. Hydroform was developed by Tibbits and his partner Marcelo Coelho. In the  video embedded above, we see how Tibbits is using folding as a computational design strategy. Essentially, Hydroform uses a 5-step method that maps the shape of an object then reduces it to one continuous line. That line is printed in a curve formation so that a single strand of material can be printed then unfolded to transform into its final shape.

Above: This chandelier was printed using Skylar Tibbit's Hydroform technology.

“We want to try to find more elegant solutions to have smarter systems in interacting and making things on your own,” says Tibbits. There are many problems that exist in the built environment, from cost to complexity to efficiency. Problems that, Tibbits hopes, can be solved by thinking differently about the way we build things, and also, the way we use things.

In this keynotes, Tibbits explains how we are now able to program nearly everything—from bits of DNA, proteins, cells, and proto-cells; to products, architecture, and infrastructure. Programmability and computing are becoming ubiquitous across scales and disciplines. Tibbits shows us how soon these small-scale technologies will translate into solutions for large-scale applications—and what it means for your industry. To book Skylar Tibbits as a keynote speaker, or, to talk with one of our agents about any of our other innovative speakers, contact The Lavin Agency.