From self-assembling furniture to curving racing car wings, seven GIFs that show the future of 4D printing

The Programmable Table

Today building something means getting our hands dirty - hammering wood, welding metal and cementing bricks.

But what if everyday objects could build themselves? If tables could snap into shape when you got them home, or pipes could contract and expand to alter the flow of water.

This is what the fields of "4D printing" and programmable matter are aimed at accomplishing, creating objects capable of self-assembly or repair.

At MIT's Self-Assembly Lab researchers are exploring ways to build items that can reshape themselves, thanks to the specially-treated materials they're built from.

As the lab's founder Skylar Tibbits put it in his TED talk: "This is like robotics without wires or motors. You print this part, and it can transform into something else."

Above is a very practical example of the field's benefits, and one that could spell the end of flat-pack furniture and inscrutable instructions.

Dubbed The Programmable Table, this is a piece of furniture made using the Wood-Skin process. The approach embeds a pre-stressed textile into the wooden structure to allow it to transform itself into predictable shapes - like this table for instance.

Unlike existing foldable furniture, this prototype made by between MIT's Self-Assembly Lab and Wood-Skin doesn't rely on hinges or other complex parts to reshape itself. If the furniture needs to be transported it can be flattened again to make it easier to move.

Image: Self-Assembly Lab, MIT, Wood-Skin, BIESSE

By Nick Heath

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.