Is 4D Printing a Thing?

Is 4D Printing a Thing?


Stratasys and MIT's folding strand (Image via

Stratasys and MIT’s folding strand (Image via

If you thought 3D printing was confusing, just wait until four-dimensional printing hits. The somewhat erroneously named term has come into vogue as of late with a few MIT-driven projects that promise to lead the way for self-assembling skyscrapers, among other futuristic phenomena.

Technologist Skylar Tibbits gave a TED talk explaining the new technology (embedded below). Where 3D printing is created by a movable nozzle slowly creating an object in a grid on the printer bed, building up layer-by-layer, 4D printing is about materials that create themselves. Well, kind of.

3D printers extrude plastic or moldable materials to create an intricately modeled final product. They create something out of nothing. “4D printing,” on the other hand, refers to a technological system, or a set of components, that are capable of forming themselves into a specific configuration. Tibbits’s examples include chains of plastic segments that, when shook, form themselves into pre-programmed patterns. There’s also this MIT video of a cube-configured “self-folding strand,” that uses water to power its movement.

Okay, so, it doesn’t look like much. But imagine the possibilities: Materials that reform themselves could lead to reconfigurable homes that can easily expand and contract for more or less space, or chairs that create themselves to the needs of the sitter. Tibbits notes that there’s a lot of potential for space station equipment that adapts to its extreme environment.

The potential for self-assembling sculpture also sounds intriguing. I, for one, would love to see a Sol Lewitt work make itself in front of my eyes.