Earlier this morning, we unveiled what might be the future of 3-D printing. Hyperform was developed by MIT grads and designers Marcelo Coelho and Skylar Tibbits to print large objects using small desktop printers. Where orthodox 3-D-printing techniques are fundamentally limited by the size of a printer bed, Hyperform prints large objects through a process of computational folding. You might be wondering about some of the projectâ€™s practical applications and the possible uses it has for designers and architects.
But first, a recap: Hyperform maps the shape of an object and reduces it to one continuous line, then folds it according to a space-filling curve (in the first iterationâ€™s case, a Hilbert Curve). The lines are designed as links, with specified joints and notches that connect to one another. This endless chain is packed into a dense cluster that fills the interior of the 3-D printer enclosure. Once printing has concluded, the user fishes out the polymer chains, which are encoded with assembly â€œinstructions.â€ All thatâ€™s left to do is quickly piece together the object.
â€œThe game youâ€™re playing is what is the longest possible curve you can fit in the smallest possible volume,â€ Tibbits explains, referring to the systemâ€™s most consequential step. Once youâ€™ve got that squared away, and have coded the notches at all the right points, printing can happen. Compared to most 3-D-printing projects, the assemblage process is childâ€™s play, requiring little more than snapping together the components.
Simple enough, right? Still, the process can be overly abstract and difficult to digest. Which is why Coelho and Tibbits gave me a handful of examples to help concretize the projectâ€™s potential. Here are five things that can be designed and printed using Hyperform.
As designers, the pair wanted to find an immediate application for their new 3-D-printing system. The design also had to immediately convey the promise and freedom only Hyperform could give to users. â€œWe wanted to show how we could make a fairly large-scale product that wouldnâ€™t have been possible on these smaller machines,â€ Coelho says.
They came up with a bespoke chandelier made of only a single, interconnected 3-D-printed chain. The final product is finely wrought and detailed, thanks to the high resolution of the Formlabs Form 1 printer Coelho and Tibbits used. They expect to make further refinements to the chandelier and even envision an entire line of Hyperform products.
Read more about the chandelierâ€™s design here.
This is a no-brainer. Coelho imagines a series of flat-pack furniture thatâ€™s a hundred times easier to assemble than current Ikea identikits. He hopes that his own knowledge of shape-changing materials and Tibbitsâ€™s experiments with 4-D printing and self-assemblage will make their way into future versions of Hyperform. When they do, Coelho says, the furniture will build themselves. â€œYouâ€™ll be able to order a chair or product from Ikea, and it will arrive at your door in a little box. Just plug it into the wall and it unfolds into anything you want.â€
Both NASA and the European Space Agency are looking, and in some cases, actively funding 3-D printed projects aimed at potential space use. The problem with building space components is that they are limited by the size of rockets that carry them into the great beyond. The heavier the add-ons, the more expensive the rocket will be. Structures are thus economically sized and then folded to fit into a rocketâ€™s shroud, only to be expanded once in space.
To get around this problem, Tibbits says, youâ€™d have to send printers up into space inside the rocket hull. But you quickly run into similar problems. The size of the printer is then limited by the spacecraftâ€™s interior dimensions. Once again: the larger the printer, the more expensive the rocket.
But you could send up smaller, cheaper printers that, using Hyperform processes, print structures that either automatically build themselves, or are pieced together by robots.
This category is a further iteration of programmable matter projects developed in the last several years at MIT, namely, Neil Gershenfeldâ€™s Milli-Motein project. Thatâ€™s understandable, given that both Coelho and Tibbits have previously collaborated with Gershenfeld and his Bits and Atoms outfit at the MIT Media Lab. By changing the makeup of an objectâ€™s nanostructure, you then change the overall shape of the object. Hyperform would allow you to define exactly how one shape transforms into another.
Right now, itâ€™s more conceivable to apply Hyperform to temporary architectural installations that donâ€™t necessarily have to accommodate extended or even enclosed habitation. Still, the systemâ€™s process of folding material is just crying out to be blown up to architectural and infrastructural scales. Given standard printing materials were swapped or mixed with stronger stuff, you could print out easy-to-assemble structures that significantly cut down on labor time.
Tibbits brings up the idea of skyscrapers but acknowledges that thatâ€™s a ways off. But if you wanted to 3-D print a tower, you wouldnâ€™t, of course, print it whole, nor, depending on the complexity of the design, print it in a bajillion pieces. Youâ€™d do it using Hyperform.
The designers put across their concept most forcefully when they describe their project as a â€œuniversal strategy,â€ a procedure that can be applied at all scales. â€œYou donâ€™t even need to know what youâ€™re building or how to build it,â€ Tibbits says, â€œbecause the materials have all the information built-in that you need in order to build it. The chain tells you how to build it.â€ Thatâ€™s a relief.