|"4D Printing: Cube Self-Folding Strand." (Video screenshot)
As if 3D printing wasn't revolutionary enough, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are adding a fourth dimension.
"We're proposing that the fourth dimension is time and that over time static objects will transform and adapt," computer scientist Skylar Tibbits told the BBC of his 4D printing project, which he recently unveiled at a conference in Los Angeles.
The process uses a 3D printing, which works by feeding the printer a material and programming a design, which the printer then constructs layer upon layer.
But there's a third step in 4D printing. Once constructed, the object can transform itself.
"What we're saying here is, you design something, you print it, it evolves," Tibbits told Wired magazine. "It's like naturally embedding smartness into the materials."
This is thanks to a layer of "smart" material that can absorb water. The water acts as an energy source, allowing the material to take the desired shape. A video demonstration shows a strand of plastic folding itself into a cube.
"Imagine water pipes that can expand to cope with different capacities or flows and save digging up the street," he told BBC.
This idea is still in the very early stages, but once perfected, could have wide-ranging applications. Cars, bikes, even buildings could build themselves.
"Imagine a scenario where you go to Ikea and buy a chair, put it in your room and it self-assembles," said Carlo Olguin, principal research scientist at Autodesk, a software developer that collaborated on the project.