On the heels of an already-impressive evolution in 3D printing technology, a Georgia Tech research team is using the Tensegrity method to shape-shift 3D objects from their flattened version to their real-world size. Designed to maximize space on NASA shuttle missions, the team uses hot water at 149-degrees to initiate the transformation from collapsed structure to its unfolded version.

Tensegrity Technology

With space being a high commodity on shuttle missions, Georgia Tech hopes to use Tensegrity technology to create more compact payloads. Allowing for seamless transport of deployable 3D structures is a big money saver – especially since the cost to send objects into spaces ranges from $9,000 to $40,000 per pound.

“We believe that you could build something like an antenna that is initially compressed and takes up a little space, but once it’s heated, say just from the heat of the sun, would fully expand,” said Jerry Qi, a professor at the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech.

Like a time-release capsule, researchers were able to create a system in which super strong floating solid rods held together by collapsible cables. Activated by hot water, the highly malleable 3D printed structure unfolds at a predetermined speed baked directly into the print. Tensegrity structures are extremely lightweight while also being very strong, ” said Glaucio Paulino, a professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “That’s the reason there’s a heavy amount of interest right now in researching the use of tensegrity structures for outer space.”

Georgia Tech Research

With the memory housed in the struts and the polymers held together by cables, the object eventually wants to transition back to its initial full sized state. Scaling these systems up has proven to be quite challenging and poses a few risks with structural integrity. With that being said, the Georgia Tech team is focused on scaling the 3D models up to large-scale structures ranging from stadiums to bridges to homes. Thankfully, the tensegrity method is known for its incredible strength even without a wide range of materials.

Still not a perfect science, the challenge is making sure that the 3D printed objects don’t deploy too fast. “For bigger and more complicated structures, if you don’t control the sequence that these struts expand, it tangles and you have a mess,” Paulino said. “By controlling the temperature at which each strut expands, we can have a phased deployment and avoid this entanglement.”

Real World Application

With the goal focused on deploying compatible objects into space, Georgia Tech’s team of researchers has its work cut out for them. From timing the object deployment perfectly to preventing the transition back to its original state, tensegrity technology is still a work in progress. If the science is perfected through trial and error, however, there is a wide range of real-world application. From state-of-the-art robotics to biomedical engineering to lightweight industrial structures, the impact on various industries would grow alongside the technology.

“These active tensegrity objects are very elegant in design and open up a range of possibilities for deployable 3D structures.”

Sources: TechCrunch, Georgia Tech