Watch: Haunting video of 3D-printed morphing matter that folds to assemble itself

The future of manufacturing may be in self-assembling materials that can be printed inexpensively and shipped flat

It looks like something out of a dream, and it could be the future of manufacturing.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have created a process that allows plastic printed with a cheap 3D printer to fold itself into predetermined shapes with the application of heat.

The complexity of the origami-like shapes being produced in the Morphing Matter Lab even in early tests gives researchers hope that the material may one day be used produce flat-pack products that can be assembled quickly with a heat gun.

Last week I wrote about a robot that was able to assemble a flat-pack chair from Ikea in minutes. Professor Yao's material would eliminate the need for complex assembly altogether.

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Leading the research is Lining Yao, assistant professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) and director of the Morphing Matter Lab, which studies next-gen materials. Professor Yao has suggested the material could be used to build emergency shelters that can pop into form with the warmth of the sun.

Self-folding systems are a big research focus in materials science right now, as we've covered before. But previous efforts have focused on materials produced using complex techniques available only in grad labs.

The self-folding properties of the material Yao's team is working with, however, will be familiar to anyone who's had the frustrating experience of operating a cheap 3D printer.

The CMU team used an FDM printer, which is about as bottom-barrel as they come. One problem with fused filament fabrication is that the fuse points typically have variable densities in the final printed structure. As a result, those points are prone to warp under stress, such as when cooled or heated.

Yao and her team simply created a model that took advantage of this natural warping. By controlling and varying the speed at which thermoplastic material is laid down by the printer and combining warp-prone filaments with rubber materials that better resist stress, they were able to create structures that had predictable and sequential warping patterns.

"We wanted to see how self-assembly could be made more democratic--accessible to many users," she said.

When a printed plastic object comes out of the printer, it's flat. That's an attractive advantage, as it makes the object easier to ship than an object in its final assembled form. When heat is applied to the flat sheet (in the video, the water is hot enough to turn the plastic gummy but not melt it) the folding process is triggered.

Different materials could be used to control the level of heat necessary to trigger folding.

"We believe the general algorithm and existing material systems should enable us to eventually make large, strong self-folding objects, such as chairs, boats, or even satellites," said Jianzhe Gu, an HCII research intern.

The CMU team partnered with researchers from Zhejiang University, Syracuse University, the University of Aizu, and TU Wien on the project.