It looks like something out of a dream, and it could be the future of manufacturing.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have created a process that allows plastic printed with a cheap 3D printer to fold itself into predetermined shapes with the application of heat.

The complexity of the origami-like shapes being produced in the Morphing Matter Lab even in early tests gives researchers hope that the material may one day be used produce flat-pack products that can be assembled quickly with a heat gun.

Last week I wrote about a robot that was able to assemble a flat-pack chair[1] from Ikea in minutes. Professor Yao's material would eliminate the need for complex assembly altogether.


Leading the research is Lining Yao, assistant professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII[2]) and director of the Morphing Matter Lab[3], which studies next-gen materials. Professor Yao has suggested the material could be used to build emergency shelters that can pop into form with the warmth of the sun.

Self-folding systems are a big research focus in materials science right now, as we've covered[4] before. But previous efforts have focused on materials produced using complex techniques available only in grad labs.

The self-folding properties of the material Yao's team is working with, however, will be familiar to anyone who's had the frustrating experience of operating a cheap 3D printer.

The CMU team used an FDM printer, which is about as bottom-barrel as they come. One problem with fused filament fabrication is that the fuse points typically have variable densities in the final printed structure. As a result, those points are prone to warp under stress, such as

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