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Material technologies reimagined:
3D-printing inflatable materials

Photo: BMW

In collaboration with the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), the BMW Design Department has successfully developed 3D-printed inflatable material technologies. The materials can self-transform, adapt and morph from one state to another. A project that will certainly meet with great interest in the upholstery industry. The result is now on show for the first time at the exhibition The Future Starts Here at the V&A in London.

The cross-disciplinary collaboration was launched two years ago with the objective of pushing the boundaries of material technologies. The project team set out to develop concepts for interiors that can adapt seamlessly to requirements. The result of their work is the first example of a fully 3D-printed inflatable material that can be customised to any size or shape. The pneumatic controls in the system allow the printed structure to transform into a variety of shapes, functions or stiffness characteristics.

“The outcome of this collaboration manifests that a new material future is imminent,” says Martina Starke, Head of BMW Brand Vision and BMW Brand Design at the BMW Group. The project aimed to move away from our current understanding of car interiors and to defy conventions such as front and back seats. “There is no need to lock the car of the future into any particular shape. Interiors could even take on malleable, modular uses,” she explains further. This is why the study is firmly focusing on technological dimensions and material properties at this stage.

Photo: BMW

The initial question facing the project team was how a visionary interior could take shape. The experts at the Self-Assembly Lab achieved a breakthrough when they managed to liquid-print air- and water-tight objects, like customised printable balloons. With this technology they can produce complex channels, strands and pockets that self-transform. Skylar Tibbits, founder of the Self-Assembly Lab explains: “We then brought together a number of recent technologies such as Rapid Liquid Printing and techniques from soft robotics to achieve this adaptive material structure. In the past, scenarios like these have often required error-prone and complex electromechanical devices or complex moulding/tooling to produce inflatables. Now we’re able to print complex inflatable structures with custom actuation and tuneable stiffness.”

On display at the V&A is a three-dimensional object which is highly dynamic, morphing its form and function. This meter-scale object exhibits a robotic-like transformation powered by a pneumatic system with seven independent chambers, enabling it to create different movement patterns. “This adaptive material technology points towards a future of transformable surfaces for adaptive human comfort, cushioning and impact performance,” says Martina Starke.