Star Wars character Yoda is one example of an object made with a 3-D printer.… (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/GETTY…)
Imagine if your coat could wrap itself around you a little bit tighter when the temperature dropped. Or what if your car drove you to work instead of the other way around?
Well, don’t expect anything in time for the next snowstorm or morning commute. But some experts predict the technology that could lead to these capabilities is likely to start entering the marketplace within the next five to 10 years.
Robots, multidimensional printers, sci-fi-style polymers and other new technologies are beginning to shape the future of manufacturing. Google is testing self-driving cars. Scientists are working on bio-printers that might create usable human tissue. And traditional manufacturing workers are losing jobs as high-tech automated processes replace familiar assembly lines.
It’s all part of a new era in manufacturing, with possibilities for expanding what U.S. manufacturers can produce, the role of the worker and the types 0f products consumers can use in their daily lives.
A major player in the new world is something called additive manufacturing — better known as 3-D printing, because the process involves putting plastics, metals or some other material into a device that works much like a printer. The device extrudes a thin layer of the material onto a flat surface. Then, it extrudes another layer, then another, until it has built a three-dimensional object. One advantage: The precise addition of substances at any point ideally makes an object stronger or more flexible exactly where it needs to be stronger or more flexible.
“I think additive manufacturing in general is going to get bigger and more important,” said Carl Bass, chief executive of Autodesk, a developer of tools for computer-aided design.
It might sound futuristic, but 3-D printing is here: Some cutting-edge dentists are printing permanent crowns for damaged teeth. Japanese company FASOTEC is using MRI scans to give expectant mothers a 3-D model — instead of the familiar wedge-shaped ultrasound printout — of their developing fetuses. And doctors can take a patient’s CT scan and create a 3-D model of human bones to better plan the individual’s treatment.
As those examples show, a lot of this technology is aimed at the lucrative health-care market. “Looking 10 years out, I do believe that when you start to look at . . . the ultimate machine, it’s the human body,” said Jeff DeGrange, vice president of direct digital manufacturing for Stratasys, which makes 3-D printers and supplies.
For now, developers are working on many levels. Autodesk’s flagship product, AutoCAD (CAD for computer-assisted design), is a professional 3-D software application primarily used by engineers to design anything from buildings to wind turbines. But the company also makes hobbyist-friendly software tools, such as 123D Design, which is free to download or use online or on an iPad. Offered in conjunction with 3-D printing, laser-cutting and other creative services, it gives amateur designers an opportunity to have their creations printed or sculpted into being.
The fourth dimension
Three-D printing is exciting enough. But consider the fourth dimension — time.
Skylar Tibbits, director of the Self-Assembly Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a lecturer in the school’s architecture department, ignited the imagination of technologists and futurists in February when he gave a TED talk on the concept of of “4-D printing” — printing objects that transform over time. Tibbits describes the process as “self-reconfiguration.”
The technology seems to come straight out of science fiction. Videos on the MITWeb site show what looks like lumpy strings being submerged in water. At a measured pace, each object changes shape. One string contorts slowly into a cube. Another makes an outline of the letters MIT. There’s no power source, no apparent reason for the material to change. And the process isn’t simply like a sponge expanding: It’s an object taking on a completely different shape. Tibbits has described it as “robotics without wires and motors.”
When explaining the process, Tibbits tends to use technical phrasing such as “geometric code” and “activation energy.” But what it seems to be, basically, is this: A black, static material is blended with a white, active material during the 3-D printing process. When put in water, the white material starts to swell — but its activity is controlled by the black material’s pre-programmed range of motion. This is key: The movement and its limits are programmed not into some kind of electronics or motors, but into the material itself.