Researchers Add A 4th ‘D’ to 3D Printing

Like a new Apple product release, the design world is abuzz again about a product with a new number: “Tired of 3D printing your next building? Try the new 4D printing method.” That extra “D,” of course, is another dimension, time, that is now being discussed in the world of three-dimensional printing techniques. Is it more hype, or is it a new breakthrough?

Researchers at Dutch architecture firm DUS Architects are now working on what they are hoping to be the first 3D-printed house in Amsterdam. The new structure slowly taking shape is being dubbed the “Canal House,” using a shipping-container-sized printer called the KamerMaker to print the structure, piece by piece, directly on-site. According to DUS, the façade and the first room could be ready by the end of this year.

Artist's rendering of what the Canal House may look like when complete. Image via DUS Architects.

Artist’s rendering of what the Canal House may look like when complete. Image via DUS Architects.

What potentially makes this 3D printing project “4D” is that the Canal House the KamerMaker is building will itself become a center for 3D printing technology, complete with educational spaces and other demonstration printers that will create more 3D-printed structures, albeit at a smaller scale. In a sense, the house itself will eventually produce more houses, like a living creature.

What one of the finished 3D printing segments might look like at full size. Image via DUS Architects.

What one of the finished 3D printing segments might look like at full size. Image via DUS Architects.

As creepy as that sounds, there may be some good to come of it, environmentally. According to Inhabitat, least some of the rooms within the Canal House will use bioplastics that contain organic materials, such as potato starch, and resin made from recycled plastic bottles, which could be a viable end-market use.

Inside the KamerMaker printing unit as it builds an element for the Canal House prototype. Image via DUS Architects.

Inside the KamerMaker printing unit as it builds an element for the Canal House prototype. Image via DUS Architects.

Meanwhile, MIT has been ratcheting up the 4D printing talk considerably by working on separate technologies that could have long-range implications on the growth of 3D printing.

Co.Exist reported on the work of MIT scientist Skylar Tibbits, who is trying to turn 3D printing materials into self-replicating entities. Taking a page from microbiology, Tibbets is experimenting with self-folding proteins that react in a predetermined way to an outside stimulus. For example, by magnetizing tiny fibers in a specific pattern, the material could snap into a particular shape when it’s immersed in water or is electrically charged. The hope is that future building materials could be programmed in this way to react to certain situations and adapt to changing weather conditions.

In another corner of MIT, other researchers are analyzing the behavior of silkworms to discover how they are able to produce such strong materials that have such varying degrees of rigidity. According to Dezeen, MIT’s Mediated Matter Group is tracking the movements of silkworms — essentially mobile biological versions of today’s additive manufacturing 3D printers — to unlock the secret to how they can create such complex and efficient structures, like cocoons, by making subtle changes in the thickness and density of their silk.

Randy Woods is a Seattle-based writer and editor with 20+ years of experience in the business publishing world. A former managing editor of Seattle Business, iSixSigma, Claims and Waste Age magazines, he has covered topics that include newspaper publishing, entrepreneurism, green businesses, insurance, environmental protection and garbage hauling (yes, really). He also contributes to the Career Center Blog for The Seattle Times and edits a photography magazine called PhotoMedia. When not working, he likes to hide out in Seattle movie theaters and attend film festivals—even on sunny days.

  • Pirate3D

    I don’t understand why the term 4D shows up. Isn’t this just discussion on a “faster” 3D printer which may make it commercially viable?

  • Gary Tolley

    So what, RepRaps, and the like, are 5D