A team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University created self-folding materials by using an inexpensive 3D printer.

The researchers reportedly used a 3D printer to create flat plastic materials that fold themselves into preset shapes when heated.

According to Lining Yao, director of the Morphing Matter Lab and an assistant professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute, the self-folding materials could one day be used to make flat-pack furniture that assembles itself with the help of heat gun.

Aside from self-assembling flat-packs, the researchers also aim to use their technology to create emergency shelters that might be shipped flat and fold into shape when touched by the heat of the sun.

The self-folding objects are said to be cheaper and quicker to produce than normal, solid 3D objects. This feature makes the material a good alternative when replacing noncritical parts or producing structure prototypes that approximate the solid objects.

For instance, highly expensive molds for boat hulls and fiberglass products could one day be inexpensively manufactured using these self-folding materials.

“We wanted to see how self-assembly could be made more democratic — accessible to many users,” Yao said.

This is not the first time that researchers have explored the possibility of creating self-folding materials. However, previous efforts required sophisticated processing methods that were costly and not widely available.

Read More: Why 3D Printing Marketplaces Won’t Last

To create their self-folding objects, Yan and her team utilized a cheap 3D printer known as FDM and took advantage of warpage, a common problem with that kind of printer.

“People hate warpage,” Yao said. “But we’ve taken this disadvantage and turned it to our advantage.”

The researchers controlled the process by adjusting the speed at which the thermoplastic material was deposited. They also combined warp-prone elements with rubber-like materials that could resist contracture.

“The software is based on new curve-folding theory representing banding motions of curved area. The software based on this theory can compile any arbitrary 3-D mesh shape to an associated thermoplastic sheet in a few seconds without human intervention,” Byoungkwon An, one of the researchers, said.

Right now, the researchers were only able to produce self-folding objects on a small scale, usually about the size of a desktop. However, they believe that it could be produced in larger scales in the future.

“We believe the general algorithm and existing material systems should enable us to eventually make large, strong self-folding objects, such as chairs, boats or even satellites,” Jianzhe Gu, an HCII research intern, said.

Where else do you think self-folding materials could find useful applications?

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