Nervous System’s 4D Printing Software

A proprietary hinge design connects rigid panels of various sizes and configures pieces to fold like fabric. (courtesy Nervous System)

A proprietary hinging system connects rigid panels of various sizes and configures to fold like fabric. (courtesy Nervous System)

A new program prints folded shapes to achieve large finished products that move like fabric.

Digital design dynamo Nervous System has released proprietary 4D printing software that allows 3D-printing enthusiasts to produce flexible, three-dimensional shapes on selective laser sintering devices. The concept came from a partnership with Motorola to design a fast and efficient platform to print anything, anywhere, but the company’s designer and founder, Jesse Louis-Rosenberg, said the technology is just not there yet. “You’ve got the tools to make anything, but speed doesn’t afford dimensionality, so it’s counter-intuitive.” To push against those boundaries, their system prints complex, foldable shapes from articulated modules that can unfold into a larger form.

Kinematics bends a product's hinges digitally to compress the design’s overall size into something smaller. (courtesy Nervous System)

Kinematics bends a product’s hinges digitally to compress the design’s overall size into something smaller. (courtesy Nervous System)

  • Fabricator Shapeways
  • Designers Nervous System
  • Location Somerville, Mass.
  • Date of Completion January 2014
  • Material nylon
  • Process Kinematics software, SLS 3D printer

While they had found inspiration from their work for Motorola and open source 3D printing sites, they developed the software for the 4D printing program from scratch. (The term 4D printing comes from MIT research around protein bar folding and the way that structures assemble themselves.) “We created a program to automatically array and weight out all the components of the joint,” said Louis-Rosenberg. A conical form was maintained throughout the process because a mesh of triangular components bends well in a sheet. After a period of trial and error, the most effective joint shape they arrived at was a tube with a conical pin so the pieces can nest within themselves.

Once a sufficient joint configuration was determined, the team asked how they could use these joints to achieve a larger finished product. Early jewelry prototypes draped like cloth, and the team began toying with the idea of printing something larger, like a dress, on an industrial SLS printer with a print bed of only 65 by 55 by 35 centimeters. Taking advantage of the bespoke hinge’s flexibility, they began developing software—Kinematics—that bends the hinges digitally to compress a design’s overall size into something smaller. “If you had a dress in real life, you scrunch it into a box so it’d fit,” Louis-Rosenberg explained. “Instead, in the computer, we took the dress design and scrunched it into the printer bed.”

Kinematics from Nervous System on Vimeo.

This was achieved by designing a locking mechanism for the tube-shaped joints. The idea is that one could print a crumpled shape that would naturally snap into its intended form. Each individual piece is a rigid form, but the movable joints are printed and require no assembly. Each design can contain hundreds or thousands of components in a range of patterns. Panels can be angular and geometric, like a mechanical component or architectural truss, while others can have a more rounded, organic design. Though the hinge technology is a standard design, customization of a wearable product was paramount.

Louis-Rosenberg is optimistic about the possibilities for this new technology. In addition to a dress, he predicts fabric-like applications for interiors emerging. “One is for a small draping lampshade, where you get an emergent draped shape, plus the geometry from the triangles,” he said. Nervous System recently printed a prototype dress with Shapeways that will appear in an exhibit at Apexart in New York this March.

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