Credit: Courtesy of Skylar Tibbits/Self-Assembly Lab at MIT and Stratasys

With the advancement of additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, scientists are investigating ways to create not only static materials, but also dynamic ones.

Created with 3D printing, so-called 4D printing creates materials that transform over time. This technology could make possible materials like "fabric that responds to light by changing its color, and to temperature by altering its permeability, and even to an external force by hardening its structure," said Ralph Nuzzo, a University of Illinois chemistry, materials science, and engineering professor, in a University of Pittsburgh press release.

Nuzzo and a multi-university team of researchers recently received a grant from the United States Army Research Office to manipulate 3D-printable materials to create substances that can modify their own structure at the macro level.

As Nuzzo's example suggests, such materials may be capable of responding autonomously to changing environmental conditions, enabling surfaces to modify their composition for context-based performance. Imagine military uniforms that alter their camouflage based on their surroundings, or building coatings that alter their structure to respond to different weather conditions.

"Rather than construct a static material or one that simply changes its shape, we're proposing the development of adaptive, biomimetic composites that reprogram their shape, properties, or functionality on demand, based upon external stimuli," said University of Pittsburgh chemical engineer and project principal investigator Anna Balazs. "By integrating our abilities to print precise, three-dimensional, hierarchically-structured materials; synthesize stimuli-responsive components; and predict the temporal behavior of the system, we expect to build the foundation for the new field of 4D printing."

This video from work at the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT and Stratasys shows what this printing technology can do.

4D Printing: Cube Self-Folding Strand from Skylar Tibbits on Vimeo.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.