3D printer material able to shift into multiple shapes over time

A couple of researchers at Colorado University have taken the technology of shape shifting 3D printing material to the next level by giving the ability to contort into several different shapes when exposed to different elements like, heat, water, etc.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology unveiled in February a "smart material" of sorts that changed shape inserting polymer fibers into traditional 3D printing material.

Colorado University Associate Professor H. Jerry Qi and Martin L. Dunn of the Singapore University of Technology and Design have advanced the material's abilities to the next level by making it possible to change into multiple predetermined shapes.

They are calling it "4D printing" because of the time element involved in the transformation process.

"In this work, the initial configuration is created by 3D printing, and then the programmed action of the shape memory fibers creates time dependence of the configuration – the 4D aspect," said Dunn, a former CU-Boulder mechanical engineering faculty member who has studied the mechanics and physics of composite materials for more than two decades.

The secret is in where the shape-shifting polymer fibers are located in the 3D printing material.

"The fascinating thing is that these shapes are defined during the design stage, which was not achievable a few years ago," Qi said.

The Colorado University team created the new material for the space program.

The material could be folded up tight into the least space consuming option possible and loaded into a rocket. Once it is exposed to the vacuum of space – presumably after it's been jettisoned from the space craft – it could then bend itself into any number of useful objects, like a solar panel, for instance.