3D-printing has been a hot topic of late due to the advancements it is making in the medical field, the mark some are having it leave in the gun control debate, and the slew of other products people making with it. But there’s a new buzz word coming out of MIT that takes the tech a step further — 4D-printing.

What is that? Developed by Stratasys and MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, it’s a process that essentially has the product being fully functional when it comes off the printer. No other parts or assembly required.

In other words, “Imagine robotics-like behavior without the reliance on complex electro-mechanical devices,” MIT’s website stated.

But there is a catch — you must add water.

When the object in its printed state is dunked into water, it shape-shifts, at joints made from a water-activated material, into the final product.

MIT and Stratasys Create 4D Printed Self Assembly Materials

(Image: Vimeo screenshot)

MIT and Stratasys Create 4D Printed Self Assembly Materials

(Image: Vimeo screenshot)

MIT and Stratasys Create 4D Printed Self Assembly Materials

(Image: Vimeo screenshot)

MIT and Stratasys Create 4D Printed Self Assembly Materials

(Image: Vimeo screenshot)

According to the project website, the team works with Cyborg software by Autodesk Research, which “allows for simulated self-assembly and programmable materials as well as optimization for design constraints and joint folding.”

See a 4D-printed object in action in this video:

The 4D-printing idea was showcased at a TED conference this week, but the lab’s leader Skylar Tibbits gave Fast Company a preview of the project. Here are real-world examples from Fast Company for how the technology could be applied:

Imagine if this technology could be used to construct pipes that could expand or contract based on their contact with water. They might get bigger to accommodate the runoff from a hurricane, then contract when the emergency is over. Imagine pipes that could bend–but not break–during an earthquake.

Imagine being able to ship parts for structures to countries where unskilled laborers are the only help available, so they can assemble themselves. Imagine how this might work in the case of disaster housing or refugee camps. Transformers without Borders!

Imagine if that desk you bought from Ikea could assemble itself, while you kicked back and watched the game.

See the acronym this printed strand folds into:

Tibbits told Fast Company he hopes someday other stimulus beyond water, like heat or light, could be used to trigger the object to fold.

Tibbits explains more about the Self-Assembly Lab’s work in this video:

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