The Fourth Dimension

Technology is constantly evolving, adapting and transforming. Now there exists a technology that is able to evolve, adapt and transform all by itself.

Known as Programmable Matter (PM), this technology builds upon the notion of 3-D printing by adding another dimension, change. PM refers to “the ability for material objects to change form and function after they are produced,” says Dr. Tom Campbell, a research associate professor at ICTAS specializing in future trends and advanced materials. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) had a program on PM in 2007. The U.S. Army Research Office recently awarded $855,000 to three universities to make advances in 4-D printing.

A Bit of History

Ushering in a new era of customization and creativity, 3-D printing removed manufacturing restrictions and enabled a single machine to “print” material into virtually any shape by simply reading a design file. However, with 3-D printing, the end product is always something static and fixed. Engineers began tinkering with the idea of creating something that could do more. Much more.

By programming the material to be printed, researchers realized they could design objects that could actually change form and function in different conditions. Sometimes, all that is needed to see the change is water, sometimes it is heat. Or in the case of Dr. Christopher Williams – associate professor, director of the DREAMS Lab at Virginia Tech, and co-director of the Center for Innovation-based Manufacturing – all that is needed for his 4-D printed airplane wing flaps to change position mid-air is electrical current, thus allowing planes to achieve an enhanced flight performance.

So how do they do it? The answer is simple. Geometry. Much like our bodies function as a result of our genetic code, 4-D printed objects function based on their geometric code. The code teaches the object how to unfold, curl and form specific angles when confronted with outside forces.   It is one thing to make a material that expands by 150% when immersed in water, but it is quite another to dictate the precise manner in which it expands, unfolding at certain angles instead of just swelling up like a bloated sponge. Perhaps real-life Transformers are not too far off?

What’s Next?

One can imagine tires that adapt to road conditions, tools that disassemble when they’re no longer needed, micro-scale robots that morph into military machines, even buildings that erect themselves. Of course, one can also imagine airplane wing codes being hacked to cause a crash. If a code can be programmed that means it can be cracked. National security heavyweights such as the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security of the Atlantic Council, a think tank with advisors such as Henry Kissinger on its board of directors, are taking a strong interest in this new technology (Businessweek).

Campbell and fellow researchers Mr. Skylar Tibbits, director of the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT, and Dr. Banning Garrett, senior fellow for innovation and global trends for the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, published a report[1] on 4-D printing with the Atlantic Council that outlines potential benefits as well as caveats. The report was reviewed by DARPA as well as faculty experts at Cornell. The message is clear: as engineers begin to develop objects made by PM, they will want to ensure that security is not an afterthought. Protective measures should be “baked in” to PM rather than being recognized after the fact.

In the words of Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “The only constant is change.” In a world where we must constantly adapt to new technologies and figure out how to integrate them into our daily lives, it only makes sense that our new technologies start figuring out how to adapt, too.

[1] Thomas A. Campbell, Skylar Tibbits, Banning Garrett (2014), “The Next Wave: 4D Printing – Programming the Material World,” Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, Atlantic Council,