'4D printing' self-adaptive materials on the horizon

Signal of change / '4D printing' self-adaptive materials on the horizon

By Futures Centre / 17 Mar 2015
Hinkle Group

In our topic hub on the future of shipping, we’re asking how self-adaptive materials will affect the nature of cargo. 

MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab has developed materials that can be programmed to transform their shape autonomously.

The materials range from flexible carbon fibre and hybrid plastics to wood grains and textiles. As Skylar Tibbits, Director of the Lab, explains, “The way we build our structures has become increasingly sophisticated, but the materials we build them from are static, waiting for us to fit them to the required shape.”

Coined ‘4D printing’, where 3D-printed material changes shape over time, the technology opens up a world of possibilities, potentially allowing buildings, infrastructure and equipment to continuously adapt to our use, and to the environment around them. These ‘smart’ materials would respond to daily wear and tear as does skin, healing itself, and so minimising the need for repair. They could also be programmed to learn new material behaviours, befitting different purposes.

So what?

The potential impacts of this technology at full maturity are vast, and could impact shipping both directly and indirectly.

  • On ships, programmable material may make it possible to replace the need for existing robotic monitoring mechanisms that involve batteries, sensors and electronics that can be failure-prone.
  • For shipping customers, self-adaptive material could work its way into packaging and transportation of goods. The potential in materials that respond to different temperatures, altitudes, or even blunt impacts could make for smarter packaging and prevent damage during shipping.


Click here to read the full report by the Sustainable Shipping Initiative exploring 15 signals of change and their potential impacts on the future of shipping.


Self-Assembly Lab 

What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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