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Is The Future Of Additive Manufacturing Unfolding?

The plastics industry, and pretty much the entire public, has been buzzing about 3D printing for some time now. The idea of producing plastic parts without the need for expensive tooling and traditional manufacturing processes is quite an attractive one. It is also a relatively affordable option, with desk-sized machines dropping below $1,000 and service providers offering great deals. But, much to the excitement of traditional plastics manufacturers, it has yet to become a viable option to replace the production standard of injection molding. This is because of the slow process of 3D printing causing individual piece prices to skyrocket. Even now, 30 years since its development, many feel that it will never be able to replace standardized methods for producing plastic parts. And, quite frankly, those of us currently employed in those fields are hoping it doesn’t.

But what uses can it serve? Well, it does a remarkable job for prototyping purposes. 3D printing has all but cut out the standard method of building a low volume tool for the sole purpose of seeing a design become a part. This process is also much more practical due to the ability to make changes to a design after each prototype is constructed. However useful as a prototyping tool, one must ask, is this to be 3D printing's swan song after 30 years in use? A gimmick for the tech crowd and a prototyping tool for plastics designers? Many at the forefront of these technologies say no.

The next evolution of additive manufacturing may have found the boost it needs to become something else or, achieve another dimension if you will. There is an exciting movement currently underway in a collaboration between MIT’s newly christened Self-Assembly Laboratory, 3D printing company Stratasys, and Autodesk Inc., the plastics software company. The effort is a move toward 4D printing, or advancing additive manufacturing to construct parts that have the ability to react to their environment. By combining traditional materials like carbon fiber with polymers that respond to stimulus such as moisture, electric charge, or even light, researchers have demonstrated printed parts that transform in pre-programmed ways. The future of additive manufacturing is literally taking shape.

Skylar Tibbits, a research scientist at MIT, has been spearheading the 4D initiative since its infancy. Tibbits is responsible for establishing the esteemed college’s Self-Assembly Laboratory and working with outside industry to usher this emerging technology into an applicable tool.

Early on, Tibbits’ research was focused on making smart objects without the assistance of sensors or wires. When stumped during these early days of discovery he learned of a material, through connections at Stratasys, which could drastically expand when introduced to water. By infusing this material into more traditional rigid materials and utilizing the part’s own geometry, Tibbits found he could manipulate the shape of an object simply by altering its environment. This feat was demonstrated during a TED talk in 2013 when, a seemingly single strand of printed material was placed into a tank of water and it formed itself into the letters MIT. While the demonstration was impressive, it should be more impressive to see the potential for these applications to unfold in the near future.

4D printing has already begun producing parts for industry through its short time in development. Currently Airbus is utilizing the technology to produce an air inlet that will change direction based on temperature and air speed. Also jumping in early is Briggs Automotive Co. The UK performance car manufacturer is looking to build aerodynamic body panels that morph based on environmental influences. This very early interest from manufacturers almost guarantees the technology will continue to grow, evolving the additive manufacturing industry and taking it farther than previously thought possible. Whatever does indeed happen with the technology, it should be interesting to watch… unfold.


Title: Forget the 3D Printer: 4D Printing Could Change Everything Publication: Author: Randy Rieland URL: Title: Taking 3D Printing to Another Dimesion Publication: Plastic News Author: Frank Esposito URL: Title: MIT’s Self Assembly Lab Publication: Author: Skylar Tibbets URL: Title: IFL Science Publication: Technology Section IFL Science Author: Dan Raviv URL:

Photo Credit: Flickr Account fdecomite Photo Name: Quadrifolium 3D Print Photographer: fdecomite URL:

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