science | July 02, 2013

Printing Time: Skylar Tibbits On Self-Assembling, 4D-Manufacturing [VIDEO]

Imagine bringing home a flat-packed coffee table, opening the box, and watching it assemble itself. Science speaker Skylar Tibbits is working toward making that process a reality. While his peers are busy with 3-D printing, Tibbits and his team at the MIT Self-Assembly lab are adding a 4th dimension to the fabrication process. Contained in this extra dimension is programmable material with the capacity to assemble itself. As he explains in his TED talk, this 4D self-assembly process is like "robotics without wires or motors; you completely print this part and it can transform into something else."

Tibbits was recently named as one of the six Architectural League winners (one of the most most prestigious awards for young architects in North America) for his transformative structures. As Gizmag and Discovery have both predicted, his work has the "potential to change and revolutionize the face of construction and manufacturing." How can this technology be applied to the real world? Tibbits is currently developing self-assembling materials with minimal cost, complication, or risk to life, for space and other extreme environments where traditional manufacturing processes are dangerous and expensive. There are also applications here on Earth. “Imagine if water pipes could expand or contract to change capacity or change flow rate; or maybe undulate like peristaltics to move the water themselves,” Tibbits proposes in his talk. “This isn’t expensive pumps or valves, this is a completely programmable and adaptive pipe on its own.”

Tibbits invites you to rethink the world we live in. We need to move away from complex and costly construction techniques—and smartly designed interactions programmed directly into our building materials could be the answer. Manufacturing processes today are expensive, energy-inefficient, and complex. In Tibbit's vision of the future, materials will transform and adapt autonomously to meet our needs. No matter what industry you're in, the TED Fellow says this type of programmability could dramatically transform the way you work.

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