“4D”: 3D printing meets self-assembly

Apr 17, 2013 | Posted in geekcraft, user experience

Part 1 (of 2)

“One day in the not-too-distant future, you will be able to buy a chair from Ikea, bring it home and watch it assemble itself in front of your eyes,” according to a story in The Guardian on Wednesday: “4D-printing: From self-assembling chairs to cancer-fighting robots.”

I’ll be attending the Inside 3D Printing conference in NYC on April 22-23, so this story caught my eye. By the way, the conference is being organized by Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman, authors of the wonderful Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing, which discusses the technology thoroughly, from manufacturing, design software and bioprinting to digital cuisine, educational applications and potential legal tangles.

Right now, consumer-level 3D printing is great for prototyping, creating a specialized object (say, a discontinued bracket to fix your kitchen drawer) or producing a small print run of a small form-factor design. Its limitations are due to the fact that it’s slow and the materials available (a few plastics and metals) are extremely limited. Also, 3D printers themselves are still quite expensive. But these issues will certainly be resolved as the technology catches on.

But back to self-assembly — pretty cool, right? The holy grail of 3D printing. Because assembly is a bugbear as far as the average consumer is concerned. Yes, there is the “Ikea effect” — the idea that we value objects we have labored over more highly than those someone else has made. But most of the people I know — granted, citing acquaintances is not very scientific — they do not like to assemble things, whether it’s a bookcase or an outdoor grill. Even I don’t like to do it sometimes, and I like to build things.

Which makes me wonder how future average people — us — would use a 3D printer at home? The idea is that we would buy and download a design off the web, then print the thing at home. Let’s say, a toy or a pair of sunglasses. But if we’d like to print anything larger than the printing bed of the average consumer 3D printer (about 20″ x 20″) — such as one of those Ikea chairs — then we’re printing parts and struggling with directions no one has taken the time to proofread. Yes, labor and transportation costs have been eliminated by printing the parts at home, which is a plus for the manufacturer and for the planet. But the unavoidable reality is: you must assemble.

So I wonder if most of us would print only items that required little or no assembly. Or, will this technology turn future generations into de facto DIYers? If a 3D printer is in every home in ten years, will generation Alphas automatically play with physical creation and assembly the way Gen Zs play with its digital analog? It’s certainly possible, as long as the tools are friendly enough.

[See also Part 2: 3D printing and assembly: A new opportunity for usability work]

NOTE: I must congratulate the writer of the Guardian headline. He or she managed to cram cancer, robots, self-assembly and (the idea of) 3D printing into one title. Google gold star! Also, the article is actually talking about two different things: materials that self-assemble to a particular shape and programmable materials that change shape as an adaptation.

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