From Printing Roses to Flat-Pack Furniture

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Morphing Matter Lab decided to use warpage to their advantage and create 4D-printed objects with it. In the future, this technology might enable flat-pack furniture manufacturers to easily ship large pieces of furniture and revolutionise the industry.

Warpage is among the main causes of annoyance in the 3D printing sector. It occurs when 3D-printed materials shrink so that the corners of the finished product lift and detach from the build plate. There are tips and tricks to avoid or minimise warpage, but researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Morphing Matter Lab decided to use this process to their advantage. They created a series of 4D-printed plastic objects that fold themselves into predetermined shapes when heated. 4D printing, thus, adds a fourth dimension to 3D-printed objects. Put simply:

3D printing + time = 4D printing

“Rather than construct a static material or one that simply changes its shape, we’re proposing the development of adaptive, biomimetic composites that reprogramme their shape, properties, or functionality on demand, based upon external stimuli” said principal investigator Anna Balazs.

The Thermorph Technology

Since 3D-printed furniture is no longer a wishful dream but almost commonplace instead, it was about time for something new. Thermorph is the answer: 3D-printed objects that can change shape and transform into a different structure when exposed to a certain stimulus.

The plan is to use this technology to revolutionise the world of flat-pack furniture, but at the moment, the researchers are working on a much smaller scale. They managed to print a rose, a boat, and a bunny that come out of the printer in the form of flat hard plastic and assume their final form once they are placed in hot water. To get an impression of the transformation process, take a moment and check out this video:

The Basic Concept

The basic concept behind the technology is a combination of layers of a stiff shape-memory polymer paired with a rubbery elastomer – a polymer with elastic properties. The team used a quite affordable 3D printer for their project and the rose took only one minute to be printed, for instance.

“Though we used a 3D printer with standard hardware, we replaced the machine’s open source software with our own code that automatically calculates the print speed and patterns necessary to achieve particular folding angles,”

they said.

Fields of Application of this Technology

Big-scale 4D printing would allow the manufacturers to produce large pieces of furniture and easily ship them to their final destination, where some kind of heat source transforms the flat object into a table, bed or much more complicated object. How exactly this technology will be used and revolutionise the industry is hardly predictable, but it will definitely play a role at drupa 2020.

The furniture industry, however, is not the only sector that might benefit from this technology. 4D printing could also be used to print boats, satellites, and even emergency shelters. The team of Morphing Matter Lab claims that this will open up new routes for producing the next generation of smart sensors, coatings, textiles, and structural components.

What other fields do you expect to benefit from this technology? Did you come across other practical uses of 4D printing?