4D Printing Programmable Materials? - By : Substance,

4D Printing Programmable Materials?

4D Printing … to program materials? Can you imagine seeing carbon fiber and wood pieces move and reform by themselves? Well yes, it is also that the 4D Printing!

About a year ago, we published an article explaining the 4D printing  concept entitled “What about 4D printing?” on the Scientific News Web platform Substance ETS of École de technologie supérieure (ETS) in Montreal. The current article describes the latest advances in this field at the cutting edge of technology. But first, some basics to understand the importance of this emerging science.

Introduction to 4D printing

4D printing is printing 3D parts, which will then assemble or take shape by themselves. Skylar Tibbits, an architect and computer scientist, is the Director of the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT, USA. In this lab, designers, scientists and engineers conduct research to create self-assembly technologies aimed at reimagining the processes of construction, manufacturing and architectural infrastructure. Along with some partners and sponsors, they are inventing 4D printing.

Programmable Materials

Research done in 2013 were on parts self-assembly to demonstrate the principle of the 4D printing. This current article focuses on their latest work: They identified how to program different materials. Skylar Tibbits group defines this concept as the following:

“Programmable Materials consist of material compositions that are designed to become highly dynamic in form and function, yet they are as cost-effective as traditional materials, easily fabricated and capable of flat-pack shipping and self-assembly.  These new materials include: self-transforming carbon fiber, printed wood grain, custom textile composites and other rubbers/plastics, which offer unprecedented capabilities including programmable actuation, sensing and self-transformation, from a simple material.”

MIT Self-Assembly Lab Team. Took on January 15th, 2015.

Program carbon fiber

The carbon fiber is used in various products to enhance composites. This is a material that has highly desirable characteristics: It is lightweight, low density while having high tensile and compressive strength and good flexibility.

The team of the Self-Assembly Lab was able to program this material so it can autonomously transform by itself . They printed an active material on soft carbon fiber fully cured and used heat as an activator.

Two companies have developed products using this technology. Briggs Automotive Company (BAC), the manufacturer of the first single-seater car designed for the road (The Mono), has developed a Morphing Supercar Wing.

A single piece programmable carbon fiber changes its shape to create an aerodynamic advantage that improves product performance. This approach does not require electronic systems, sensors, actuators or other. It reduces the overall weight and minimizes failure-prone mechanisms.


Similarly, Airbus company designed an engine flap that transforms autonomously.

Program wood

It’s not easy to bend wood: It takes expertise, sophisticated steaming equipment and forming process requires time and skilled labor. Characteristics and granular structure of wood species must also be considered. The laboratory team has developed innovative approaches to program novel printing on wood composites to solve those limitations and make wood forms self-transforming.

Currently, wood is converted into water but new processes are being developed.

Program textile composites

We use and transform textiles since a long time! To give rigid forms to textiles, we use complex forming methods and molds equally complex. New ways were found for self-transforming structures by varying thickness of textile layers. These simplified methods can present significant advantages for manufacturing furniture, packaging, transportation and other manufacturing sectors.

Program in water, air…

Research continues at Self-Assembly Lab to find new ways that can help to program materials as demonstrated by these two videos.

Good progress that we would like to see in products and systems in the near future!

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