3D printing is over 20 years old, but it feels like we're just finally starting to truly unlock the potential of the technology. The continued march of technology is relentless, however, and some inventors are already thinking about what comes next.
The next big thing may very well be 4D printing, a new technology from Skylar Tibbits, an architect, designer and computer scientist. The core concept behind this new technology is self assembly.
It may sound strange and far out, but it's actually quite simple. 4D printing is being billed as a process where synthetic objects can change and adapt themselves to the environment. In a recent TED interview, Tibbits compared the process of 4D printing to the process of natural adaptation:
Natural systems obviously have this built in — the ability to have a desire. Plants, for example, generally have the desire to grow towards light and they generate energy from the translation of photosynthesis, carbon dioxide to oxygen, and so on. This is extremely difficult to build into synthetic systems — the ability to “want” or need something and know how to change itself in order to acquire it, or the ability to generate its own energy source. If we combine the processes that natural systems offer intrinsically (genetic instructions, energy production, error correction) with those artificial or synthetic (programmability for design and scaffold, structure, mechanisms) we can potentially have extremely large-scale quasi-biological and quasi-synthetic architectural organisms.
The concept of 4D printing is still pretty abstract, however, so here's some videos of the process in action to give you an idea of how this works:
It should be stated that 4D printing won't be the end of 3D printing. In fact, both go hand in hand as 3D printers are helping to create the materials used in 4D printing. It's not like one is going to replace the other, but rather they help each other reach new heights in innovation.[h/t: Objet Blog]