Design TED Fellows

Welcome to 4D printing: A Q&A with Skylar Tibbits at TED2013

Posted by: Karen Eng
Photo: Ryan Lash

Skylar Tibbits demonstrates self-assembly technology at TEDU. Photo: Ryan Lash

We’ve all heard of 3D printing. But what the heck is 4D printing? During TED Senior Fellow’s Skylar Tibbits’ talk at TED University on Thursday, he unveiled the concept — 3D printed objects that seamlessly continue to expand, fold and harden into different forms (see video below). The talk has gotten a lot of attention. We spoke to Skylar about the experience and asked more about what he’s up to with his newly founded MIT Self-Assembly Lab.

How are you feeling about all the attention, and why do you think there has been such a strong response from the public?

It is exciting and a bit hard to believe. This is my third Long Beach conference, and the amount of press this year has completely trumped anything that was written in the past two. I think it’s mostly due to the provocation of using the words “4D printing.” We fully believe in this technology and that it truly is 4D — meaning parts transform on their own over time. But at the end of the day, the most excitement is probably just from the name. Hopefully the technology that Stratasys developed, the demonstrations we showed and the continual development of this research will emphasize that it is truly a paradigm shift in how we think of materials and making today.

In your talk you spoke about applications for space. Can you tell us more?

We’ve recently submitted for a NASA solicitation and are hoping to continue designing and developing new methods for full reconfiguration and self-assembly of highly functional space systems. We are interested in the opposite methodology of the international space station (or space construction today), in other words, complex structures made in expensive and complex ways that come together in even more complex ways — often requiring astronaut construction and costly energy sources. How can we develop simple systems that can be shipped compactly, that then expand and become fully functional on demand while in orbit, that can be fully reconfigurable to various other highly functional systems, completely on their own and triggered by activation energies naturally found in the space environment — such as pressure, light and temperature change?

Tell us more about the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT. How did it come about? What are your hopes for it in terms of research and practical application?

The lab is just starting and really an exciting time. We recently were offered space at a great place at MIT called The International Design Center, and we’re currently fundraising, grant writing and collaborating with various industry partners to kickstart the lab for the upcoming year. We are interested in developing near-term applications that can make a more adaptive and resilient environment, as well as very far-term design for the future of “making” and lifelike materials at the macro scale. Near-term projects in clued adaptable infrastructure such as piping and bridges, self-assembly for low-energy manufacturing, and passive energy construction techniques. Some of our long-term projects include developing programmable matter to be recyclable or evolvable, toolsets for a new generation of matter programmers (as distinct from computer programmers), and systems that converge natural/physical with synthetic/digital worlds.

Sklyar Tibbits’ TED Talk has been posted. Watch it here»