New 3D printing technique could make shapeshifting robots more practical

You may even see smart implants.

Verduzco Laboratory/Rice University

It just got a little easier to create soft robots that adapt to the world around them. Rice University researchers have developed a 3D printing technique (they call it “4D”) for material that automatically changes to an alternate shape when subjected to an electric current, changes in temperature or simple stress. The team produced a liquid crystal polymer ‘ink’ with two exclusive sets of molecular links — one with the originally printed shape, and another by manipulating the material. In this case, scientists just had to heat or cool the material to flip it between a flat surface and a bumpy one, among other changes.

The challenge was to craft a polymer mix that could be printed in a catalyst bath without losing its shape, Rice said.

There are drawbacks. You can’t print unsupported structures, and that limits the shape combinations you can make. There’s also no immediate indication that this is ready for the large-scale production needed for the real world — any uses might be years away. The practical uses are clear, though: you could create soft robots that move like jellyfish, or even shape-changing medical implants that configure themselves to suit your body.