Using 4-D Technology to Advance the Digital Humanities

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 8.17.43 PM.pngSelf-folding process of smart-shape memory materials; Credit: Qi Laboratory, Georgia Tech


Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Singapore University of Technology and Design have developed a way to create 3-D structures from parts which had been formerly flat or rolled by introducing outside stimuli. The stimuli would include timed exposure to light, temperature, or moisture which would lead to the creation of space structures, medical devices, robots, ect. from formerly flattened 3-D parts.

Smart shape memory polymers which remember a set shape were modified by researchers to form a second shape when heat was introduced to the polymers. To create a shape-shifting object 3-D printers create multiple parts using materials with different dynamic principles within the structure. When heat is then added to these components the polymers respond at different rates, depending on their composition, and through proper timing scientists can create self-assembled objects.

A common difficulty which researchers have come across in the past is being able to accurately time the responses to the stimuli so that different components of the object do not contract and thus block the folding of other components. In order to solve this issue researchers have standard of measurement was created to anticipate collisions. The metric is then used in conjunction with a reduced order model to ensure that self-folding structures lock in their desired shape.

The research teams have used companion finite elements in order to predict the 3-D components responses to stimuli. The components are made of different ratios of two different shape-memory polymers the objects will react differently. As many as ten different materials have been integrated as part of a given object.

Former attempts to create self-assembled objects required multiple heaters set throughout the object and then using outside control to turn heaters on and off at specific times. This process was incredibly complicated and time consuming so to simplify the process researchers used a uniform heater and instead used the materials internal control of expansion to time its space change.

As of right now the anticipated uses have been primarily scientific, specifically for space and medical advancements. One example given was that of an unmanned air vehicle which could transform into a cruise mission vehicle and then to one designed to make dives. This would allow for one object to be used for multiple purposes ultimately saving both time and money.

However it may also pose opportunities for advancement within the digital humanities. With this technology it could be possible for changing replicas to be created to present a visual representation of how a location changes over time. For example a replica of what Pompeii looked like before the volcano could be created and based on exposure to stimuli could transform into what Pompeii looked like afterwards. If scientists are able to modify the polymers so they may remember several different shapes this technology could also be used in terms of geography to illustrate how the continents have shifted over time.

I feel this advancement could be incredibly helpful in terms of bringing medical technology to underdeveloped countries. I also believe it could become a teaching tool if it becomes less expensive and more user friendly. With this kind of technology teachers and professors around the world could demonstrate change over a period of time using 3-D models. This would add another level of understanding, specifically for those who are visual and kinesthetic learners. Ultimately I feel this kind of advancement could only benefit humanity in both the sciences and humanities.

Georgia Institute of Technology. “4-D technology allows self-folding of complex objects.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 September 2015. <>.

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