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Expert Interview - Skylar Tibbits, MIT

1)Tell us a little bit about yourself, your academic background, how you got into 3-D printing, etc.
First, I have an undergraduate degree in Architecture from Philadelphia University. It was an interesting time in the field and some of us began investigating software as well as teaching ourselves computer programming. As we learned how to program, we were then able to digitally fabricate objects. After undergraduate, I decided to pursue a degree at MIT. I obtained a master’s degree in design computation, which is more related to architecture, and then I received a second master’s in Computer Science, also from MIT.

The idea of 3-D printing came out of frustration with the limits of code, and design, and assembly as I was doing a lot of experimental sculptures. At MIT, I learned about robotics and self-assembly systems. Then we were able to digital fabricate things, yet we still had to assemble everything by hand.

I have been designing physical self-assembly systems for the past 5 years but it always required the addition of magnets, springs or other sources of potential energy. Recently, I began talking to Stratasys and asking them if there was a way to streamline the assembly process further. I was looking for ways to embed more dynamic materials into what I was designing/printing.

2)Why 4-D Printing and why now?
4-D printing provides a means to go beyond printing static objects, and introduces a new paradigm of printing. The objects being 4-D printed transform over time, completely on their own. There are lot of exciting things happening with smart materials and dynamic systems. 4D Printing gives us now the ability to customize the printing/making of smart and dynamic structures, easily and quickly.

3)What can you tell us about the process and materials you use for your 4-D printing? Relatively speaking, is it a low-cost process?
We are working in collaboration with Stratasys in the printing of the objects. We are using high-end, precise machines, the Connex multi-material printers, allowing us to print with multiple types of material at the same time. The materials we are using are no more expensive than those you would use for 3-D printing. There are essentially two types, one that is used for the rigid part of the design, and then joints are made using a synthetic polymer which can expand up to 150% when it comes into contact with water.

4)What type of market does your concept of printing best fit into?
Our printing fits into all the same markets that 3-d printing does. The difference here is that we are using highly customized elements. Each part that is printed is unique, and transformation really is the key feature of this printing technique. The advantage to our printing is that you can make objects with contain adaptive and smart materials. These could be used in athletic wear, household goods, furniture, etc. We are trying to find ways to take what have traditionally been static objects into more dynamic and adaptable ones.

5)Where do you see the future of these advanced types of printing going in the next 5-10 years?
We will have a larger array of these types of 4-D materials and they will be able to respond to a variety of situations and uses. We hope to be able to bring the technology to market and implement it.


Self-Assembly Lab director, Skylar Tibbits, is a trained Architect, Designer, Computer Scientist and Artist whose research focuses on developing self-assembly technologies for large-scale structures in our builtl environment. Skylar is currently a faculty member in MIT's Department of Architecture, teaching graduate and undergraduate design studios and co-teaching How to Make (Almost) Anything, a seminar at MIT's Media Lab. Skylar was recently awarded a TED2012 Senior Fellowship, a TED2011 Fellowship and has been named a Revolutionary Mind in SEED Magazine's 2008 Design Issue. Previously, he has worked at a number of renowned design offices including: Zaha Hadid Architects, Asymptote Architecture and Point b Design. He has designed and built large-scale installations around the world, including locations in New York, Philadelphia, Paris, Calgary, Berlin, Frankfurt, Long Beach, Edinburgh and Cambridge. He has also exhibited work at prestigious institutions, including; The Guggenheim Museum NY, the Beijing Biennale, Storefront for Art and Architecture and lectured at MoMA and SEED Media Group's MIND08 Conference. He has been published extensively online and in print outlets such as the New York Times, Wired, Nature, Fast Company, various peer-reviewed journals and books including: Fabricate: Making Digital Architecture, Digital Architecture, Testing to Failure, Scripting Cultures and Form + Code. As a guest critic, Skylar has visited schools around the world including; The University of Pennsylvania, The Institute for Computational Design, The Architectural Association, Pratt Institute and Harvard's Graduate School of Design.

Skylar graduated from Philadelphia University with a 5 yr. Bachelor of Architecture degree and minor in experimental computation. Continuing his education at MIT, he received a Masters of Science in Design + Computation and a Masters of Science in Computer Science under the guidance of advisors; Patrick Winston, Neil Gershenfeld, Erik Demaine and Terry Knight.

Skylar is also the founder and principal of a multidisciplinary architecture, art and design practice, SJET LLC. Started in 2007 as platform for experimental computation and design, SJET has grown into a research-based practice crossing disciplines from architecture, design, sculpture, fabrication, computer science, toys to robotics.