No, this isn't Star Wars, but it's close! Skylar Tibbits, a research scientist in MIT's Department of Architecture, is researching a new technology phenomenon called "self assembly" through programmable materials, or manufacturing in the fourth dimension.
"We're used to slamming stuff together," using "brute force" that takes a lot of time, energy and materials, Tibbits told the audience at the recent Global Plastics Summit, produced by plastics trade association SPI (Washington, DC) and global information company IHS (Englewood, CO). "We need to rethink how we build things. How do we get to better ways of building things so there are no more ‘top down' builders? We put more information into the materials themselves," he said. "The result is self-assembly."
Self-assembly is a process by which disordered parts build an ordered structure through local interaction, he explained. It is basically reverse entropy. Self-assembly requires geometry, energy and stickiness. The user doesn't need any knowledge of what he's building because the materials have the information to assemble themselves into a product using intermolecular bonding. Increasing or decreasing energy dictates potential structures.
Physical materials can be programmed with the ability to change shape and function by design. "Smart materials can be any material—composites, textiles, wood, plastics and so forth," Tibbits said. "We can activate them, customize them to be anything we want. We print static things that can be produced in other ways."
4D printing with smart materials involves multi-material printing. Tibbits' lab has worked with both Stratasys and Autodesk to develop the process. One layer is the polymer that contains the geometric information (i.e., what to do); other layers contain the energy—the sensors, actuators and logic in the materials themselves—to precisely transform the static thing into something else. "We can make a flat piece of material, easily ship it to another location where it unfolds into a functional product," explained Tibbits. "We print flat sheets then get positive and negative curvatures—activate it—to produce something else. It's like thermoforming, [except that] we can make the material self-transform rather than force it to form [using external heat and energy]."
The technology can be applied in remote places—outer space, mountain tops and deep in the ocean—or inside the human body with self-assembling implants.
The use of 4D manufacturing will allow us to work with the material's own energy, so that we no longer have to "fight it" using more labor and bigger machines, which can be inhibiting to our ability to build useful things anywhere in the universe.
"It's not top down but, rather, bottom up," emphasized Tibbits. "We collaborate with energy and the components, not make them our slaves. We can reduce materials and have a higher functioning system. It's a different mentality for how we build and manufacture."
For a quick 8-minute introduction to this topic, see Skylar Tibbits' Ted Talk.