4D printing makes lattice that turns into a face

A new method for 4D printing, which makes objects that can change shapes based on the environment, could be useful in electronics, smart fabrics, and more.

Boston University • futurity
Oct. 8, 2019 5 minSource

A set of unpainted masks sit on a newspaper

A new 4D-printing technique uses latticework composed of multiple materials that grow or shrink in response to environmental changes, finally making the most complex shape changes possible.

Over the past decade, scientists have found inspiration in nature—like the way that plants and flowers unfurl their leaves and blooms—as they have sought to develop new materials and techniques for 3D and 4D printing, where the fourth dimension represents a structure’s ability to transform its shape over time, much like a flower blossoming. But complex curvature—the kind of shape-shifting that it would take to turn a flat sheet of material into something resembling a human face—has remained out of reach until now.

“By printing materials with different thermal expansion behavior in predefined configurations, we can control the growth and shrinkage of each individual ‘rib’ of the lattice, which in turn gives rise to complex bending of the printed lattice,” says co-lead author William Boley, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the College of Engineering at Boston University, who began work on the project as a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

A researcher drops the latticework into a tank of water. As it floats to the bottom, it changes shape into the face
Upon dropping the flat latticework into a tank of saltwater, it responds to the change in salinity and morphs into the facial likeness of mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. (Credit: Lori Sanders/Harvard)

To showcase the abilities of the method, the team chose to mimic the face of the 19th-century mathematician who first laid the foundations of differential geometry: Carl Friedrich Gauss. The researchers analyzed a 2D portrait of Gauss, which Christian Albrecht Jensen painted in 1840, using a machine-learning algorithm that helped them adapt that 2D image into a digital 3D profile of Gauss’ features.

Then, using the 3D profile as a guide, they 3D printed a flat latticework of different material layers, designed to grow, flex, and shrink in response to environmental changes in precise ways that would recreate the unique curves of Gauss’ face. Upon dropping the flat latticework into a tank of saltwater, it responds to the change in salinity and morphs into Gauss’ likeness.

The lattice appears in the shape of Gauss' face on a black background
The lattice in the shape of Gauss’ face. (Credit: Lori Sanders/Harvard)

“The open cells of the curved lattice give it the ability to grow or shrink a lot, even if the material itself undergoes limited extension,” says co-lead author Wim M. van Rees, who like Boley was also a former postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, and is now an assistant professor at MIT.

But to achieve complex curves, growing and shrinking the lattice on its own isn’t enough. You need to be able to direct the growth locally.

“That’s where the materials palette that we’ve developed comes in,” says Boley. The team employed four different materials and programmed each “rib” of the lattice to change shape in special ways.

The material starts as a window-shaped box (with slight distortions) and then contracts to form a star shape
The shape-shifting patch antenna, which can adopt different frequencies as it changes shape. (Credit: Lori Sanders/Harvard)

As a second demonstration, they also printed a more practical product of their method: a shape-shifting, low-profile radio antenna (called a “patch” antenna), which can adopt different frequencies as it changes shape.

“Together, we are creating new classes of shape-shifting matter,” says co-corresponding author Jennifer A. Lewis, a professor of biologically inspired engineering. “Using an integrated design and fabrication approach, we can encode complex ‘instruction sets’ within these printed materials that drive their shape-morphing behavior.”

This design approach and multimaterial 4D-printing method could be extended to other stimuli-responsive materials and be used to create scalable, reversible, shape-shifting structures with unprecedented complexity. Based on their experimental successes, the team envisions that the 4D-printing technique could have uses in many different industrial and research areas.

“Application areas include soft electronics, smart fabrics, tissue engineering, robotics, and beyond,” says Boley.

The research appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Support for the work came from the National Science Foundation and Draper Laboratory.

Source: Leah Burrows for Boston University

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