Aug 24, 2016 | By Andre

There is a lot in the media about the many advancements in 3D printing and we here at 3ders love to gobble up the exciting news blips as much as anyone else. But it's the occasional story about 4D printing that tends to get the most curious of reactions from our readers.

4D printing is a technology that allows physical things (often 3D printed) to retain embedded self-assembly instructions that can be activated by any number of external triggers. This means a completely different form can be produced, without any human interference, from what was originally manufactured.

It now seems that an MIT research team lead by Skylar Tibbits has been working consistently for a few years to develop a cell phone that assembles itself. That's right, a phone that can assemble itself. Now before you fall backward from your chair in amazement please let me elaborate.

MIT's Self-Assembly Lab Co-director Tibbits expresses himself on the laboratories purpose by observing that “if you look at how things are manufactured at every other scale other than the human scale—look at DNA and cells and proteins, then look at the planetary scale—everything is built through self assembly. But at the human scale, it's the opposite. Everything is built top down. We take components and we force them together.”

It’s on that foundation that the self-assembling cell-phone project was born. With funding from DARPA, the new project is only to be considered 4D printing in its most basic sense. In this case, the components are self-assembled via a necessary external stimulus (namely, a tumbler) as seen in the video below.

Composed of six parts that assemble into two different phones, the components come together in under a minute and although done in a seemingly simple and organic way, in reality is anything but. Variables like tumbler speed, the reliability of the lock-and-key mechanisms that ensure the proper connections are made, and the magnets (with varying polarity) all have to be tuned exactly right for the phone to come together without human intervention.

While this may seem like a cool party trick (“Hey, check out what my phone can do!”) the potential of the technology from a mass production perspective is real. Just imagine, all the necessary components to produce a phone thrown into a industrial scale tumbler with several phones being spun and self-assembled in a continuous flow. This all translates to more automation, no risk of human error and oh snap, they took our jobs again.

For now though, the technology is still in the very early days and restricted to a laboratory setting. It is in that ecosystem where Tibbits and his team continue to think outside of the box by saying “imagine you take a circuit board and you have different logical building blocks and those logical building blocks can be tumbled around—you can have different functionalities.”

Some of you may remember when Google’s compartmental smartphone Project Ara launched with the potential of being 3D printed. While that element of the project was shelved for now, there’s no reason to think that future versions of Google’s compartmental smart-phone can’t self assemble right in front of your eyes.

I can see myself walking into a electronics store in the not too distant future. I pick a GPS module along with the newest camera module off a wall, pull my phone out of my pocket and toss everything into an assembly spinner and voila, instant upgrade!



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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RobinLeech wrote at 8/24/2016 11:57:47 PM:

I can picture people running from a bunch of GTerminator drones(with their own phones and GPS!) self-assembling as they consume you and recycle you into bio-plastic, calcium and iron reinforcement and nano-wire circuitry made with the iron in your blood etc. There really is a need for an effort to ensure any serious tech like that to be something the masses can produce so everyone is at least on equal footing. The last thing we need is a tyrannical entity or monopoly like Google to control it.

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