4D printing: The new frontier

Autodesk, academia, and coming-of-age firms like Stratsys and Organovo are all collaborating on an incredible new dimension on creation with programable materials.
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

The basic principles of design are being transformed by exciting new realities in materials and production methods that borrow principles from nano and bio technologies, but at a macro scale.

While the new generation of 3Dadditive printing technologies are currently limited by the few plastics and soft metal consumables that form the objects they create from CAD files, 4D is showing enormous promise.

Advances in the nano biotech world are being applied at a macro scale, using exciting new materials that can be programmed to change their form over time. I spent some time earlier this week with Carlos Olguin, who runs the Bio/Nano/Programmable Matter group at Autodesk, and spoke with Skylar Tibbits of MIT, and Shelly Linor and Daniel Dikovsky of Stratasys yesterday to find out more about the ways this nascent industry is taking shape and how they all work together.

The fourth dimension in 4D printing refers to materials that are able to change and mutate over time when exposed to water, temperature changes and/or air to self assemble. 4D object formats will soon have API's (Application Programming Interfaces) that enable designers to define the characteristics of the materials they are made from, which are then printed using sophisticated chemical calibrations to enable specific attributes and functionality.

Like the home brew computer movement in the 1970's that enabled DOS and early PC's, the new "4D" frontier today (Skylar Tibbits is the originator of the modern 4D concept) is an intriguing mix of participants. Autodesk, who are becoming central in the life sciences area, providing design tools for nano scale that originated from their ubiquitous architectural and mechanical design tools, now finds the micro world influencing the macro. Academia is at the forefront of exploring this emergent world in collaboration with Autodesk and others, with an aim of democratizing the space with standards and APIs that coders and designers can use.

Stratasys have been in business since 1989, and their maturity in 3D printers and 3D production systems for office-based rapid prototyping and direct digital manufacturing solutions are an important part of this new movement. They merged with Objet Geometries late last year and are central to the manufacturing process. Organovo make biological 3D printers: their "bioplotter" can shape living tissue using living cells, and will ultimately be able to "print" living organs — and they are now collaborating with Autodesk to create 3D design software. These companies are all individually interesting, but the blending of their disciplines makes for some truly fascinating innovations.

According to Carlos Olguin of Autodesk, the goal is to democratize the space to enable lay people without multiple PhD's in chemistry and life sciences to experiment. Stratasys' global education director Shelly Linor discussed with me the ASTM F2915 xml standard "Additive Manufacturing" file format (.amf ), which standardizes the attributes Autodesk and others need to design around. These file already describe the geometrical attributes of objects — now they are being used to define material consistencies and blends. Autodesk will soon launch "Project Cyborg", and you can download 123D, a movie phone 3D object scanner, today.

The synergies and collaborations between these companies and the Self Assembly labs at MIT, headed up by Skylar Tibbits and other academic groups, are identifying all sorts of promising areas of exploration — but perhaps the most interesting aspect of all this is the advances in 4D materials, which enable new ways of thinking. The concepts of self repairing jeans made from biological materials, flat packed vacuum wrapped furniture that self assembles when exposed to the atmosphere, and objects that assemble and disassemble depending on temperature all seem like science fiction, but are being explored today. Like printable human organs, we are years away from actualization, but the goals are in place to enable innovation.

When polymers and plastics first appeared in the late 1950s, there was a resulting explosion of innovation (the modern Lego toy brick was patented on January 28, 1958. It took another five years to find the right material ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) polymer to mass produce it). However, attempts at creating 4D objects with then-relatively crude chemistry experiments ultimately resulted in a few new toys and little else except some media buzz, while plastics mass production transformed the world.

Today, we are entering a new age that is the inverse, where the self assembling natural order of the universe is harnessed to enable small scale manufacturing of objects created by a new generation that will be "matter programmers, not computer programmers", as Skylar Tibbits put it.

This is already happening — Autodesk own Instructables, Thingiverse and defcad are increasingly busy, while the open source community is gathering 3 and 4D momentum. Tools such as vox.cad cross-platform open source voxel modeling and analyzing software (a voxel is a 3D volumetric pixel) are widely used today at MIT and inside the printer companies.

The materials are the most important component in all this. Despite all the current hoopla about home 3D printers, the cost of consumables and size constraints make the new generation of questionable value over lower small run manufacturing costs at a more industrial scale, as this blog post by Jonas Benzen argues. Today, 3D printers are mostly used for prototyping and industrial design in soft modeling materials.

Some of our printing concepts are an outmoded paradigm — the real advances are sure to come in the chemistry of the materials. As Daniel Dikovskey of Stratasys explained, it's the blend of multiple materials that are an important element of the material programming interface. This form of modern alchemy that programs properties into the materials to be created is the important new paradigm. Design principles that take advantage of the mutable properties of these amazing new materials are slowly taking shape, and while today's materials are limited, there is an explosion of activity and rapid advancement. Within four to five years, we should see highly sophisticated materials that can be programmed and printed, the result of a flowering of collaboration in a rapidly evolving and currently open, inclusive business space.

Editorial standards