3D printing is becoming 4D, with shape-shifting objects

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Now that 3D printing is mainstream enough to support high-street shops, facilities at Staples and plenty of cheap printers, researchers have turned their eye to the next stage: 4D printing. The fourth dimension is time: Scientists at Harvard, Pittsburgh and Illinois are developing materials that will “exhibit behavior that changes over time.”

At the most basic level, the object simply change shape over time, as outlined by MIT’s Skylar Tibbits. Along with Stratasys, a leading maker of 3D printers, he is experimenting with materials that can assemble themselves once they’re printed out. All it takes is some energy-providing external stimulus such as water, heat or movement.

In the future, that could mean water pipes that don’t break in the winter, self-repairing machines or even furniture that assembles itself. Objects could react to their environment: They could range from textiles that repel rain to contact lenses that clean themselves, or army uniforms that harden on impact with shrapnel. And if this sounds merely like a crazy fantasy dreamed up by some scientists, the United States Army Research Office has just given the team a $855,000 grant to develop their ideas.