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Liquid Printed Pneumatics: BMW & MIT reimagine car interiors with adaptable 3D printed inflatables

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Arguably one of the most cutting-edge niches of the additive manufacturing sector is the development of dynamic and changing printed structures. Sometimes referred to as 4D printing, we’ve seen researchers 3D print self-folding structures and other smart, shapeshifting materials. A recent development coming out of MIT’s  Self-Assembly Laboratory has demonstrated a new type of dynamic printing which integrates pneumatics for inflatable 3D printed objects.

The innovative project, called “Liquid Printed Pneumatics,” was carried out in collaboration with the BMW Design Department and is currently being displayed as part of The Future Starts Here exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, which is highlighting groundbreaking and future-minded designs.

In development for the past two years, Liquid Printed Pneumatics consists of making structures from a special silicone material which is both airtight and watertight. This enables the printed shapes to expand and contract as air pressure is increased or decreased. Because the silicone material is stretchy, the transformation between a deflated and fully inflated structure is pretty drastic. The project also incorporates pneumatic controls which “allow the printed structure to transform into a variety of shapes” with various functions and stiffness characteristics.

Printed Pneumatics

The printing technology behind the inflatable structures is the Self-Assembly Lab’s Rapid Liquid Printing process, which was introduced in 2017 and developed in partnership with furniture company Steelcase. Rapid Liquid Printing uses a computer-controlled extrusion nozzle to “physically draws in 3D space within a gel suspension,” says the MIT research group. By using a gel suspension, the researchers have the ability to print structures from softer materials—such as silicone—without the need for supports.

What are the applications for the Liquid Printed Pneumatics? Well, if the BMW collaboration hadn’t tipped you off, the goal is to use the 3D printed inflatables to reinvent car interiors. In fact, BMW reached out to the MIT Self-Assembly Laboratory with the express goal of realizing processes and technologies to bring its futuristic vehicle design concepts to life. Its vision of creating interactive and adaptable interiors is now one step closer to actualization.

“I think in the future, the interior of a car will be more modular, it will change more,” said Martina Starke, the head of BMW Brand Vision and BMW Brand Design. “The potential of this material is really great because is is adaptive to the customer, to the human being.”

“We are proud to be one of the contributors to show our achievements,” added Starke about the project’s inclusion in The Future Starts Here exhibition. “The ‘Liquid Printed Pneumatics’ project is a perfect example for a fruitful cross-disciplinary collaboration we’ll see more and more over the coming years, especially at BMW.”

BMW, for its part, has been a strong proponent for additive manufacturing technologies in the automotive industry. In April, for instance, the German automaker announced it would invest €10 million into a new BMW Additive Manufacturing Campus. It has also been using metal 3D printing to produce thousands of parts for its BMW i8 Roaster vehicle.

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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