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MIT lab 3D printed programmable self-assembling wood and carbon fiber
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By Staff | 3Ders

Skylar Tibbits, an architect, designer and computer scientist presented a new concept in February 2013: 4D printing. This emerging technology will allow us to print objects that then reshape themselves or self-assemble over time. Just imagine, a printed cube that folds before your eyes, or a printed pipe able to sense the need to expand or contract.

Can we create objects that assemble themselves -- that zip together like a strand of DNA or that have the ability for transformation embedded into them? These are the questions that Tibbits investigates in his Self-Assembly Lab at MIT, a cross-disciplinary research space where designers, scientists and engineers come together to find ways for disordered parts to become ordered structures.

Using the unique Objet Connex multi-material 3D printing technology from Stratasys Tibbits is able to program different materials properties into each of the various particles of the designed geometry. When using some materials with different water-absorbing properties he could just program them to activate the self-assembly process.

This revolutionary technique offers a streamlined path from idea to reality with full functionality built directly into the materials. A year after they figured out how to reprogram plastic to self-assemble into new structures, directly off the print-bed, they have come up some new materials that can be programmed to transform their shape autonomously. 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.

For example, wood and carbon fiber objects are solid and they don't bend. But MIT researchers has created custom programmable wood that transform their shape subject to moisture. Normally it requires a large amount of labour to get wood to bend - a process of steaming, soaking, or pressure-treating. By controlling the pattern of the wood grain, researchers were able to 4D print flattened wooden pieces that morphs with the temperature. In their lab, different patterns of grain direction, thickness and material combinations were explored to promote precise transformation.

"It's this new opportunity that we can produce and ship these things flat in the factory, and have them potentially vacuum-packed with moisture in them." Tibbits tells Wired UK. "When you open the package on the other side, it curls into the pre-programmed product that you purchased."

Perhaps their most exciting project is their work with 3D printing carbon fiber, a material that is used in many industrial applications as well as luggage and shoes. "We're releasing self-transforming carbon fibre," Tibbits says. "It's fully cured but designed to be flexible. What we do is we print with different materials on to the carbon fibre to make it active."

The light, super-strong carbon fiber can be used in jet engines with parts that regulate the airflow for cooling the engine depending on the amount of heat, or car airfoils that change shape in different weather conditions.

Tibbits says they're also working on rubber that can be printed in flat and spring into shape later. "For shoes, tyres, those kinds of applications, as it gets wet, the grip can change," he says.

"Our goal is true material robotics or robots without robots." Tibbits says. They have brought a number of recent technologies together to enable a breakthrough in material performance, include multi-material 3D/4D printing, advances in materials science and new capabilities in simulation/optimization software. "These capabilities have now made it possible to fully program a wide range of materials to change shape, appearance or other property, on demand." notes Self-Assembly Lab.

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Posted on June 27, 2014

By Hannah Rose Mendoza | 3D Print