Engineering leaders at Massachusetts Institute of Technology are partnering with the automotive minds at BMW to develop a 3D printed, inflatable and stretchy material that could change the way cars are manufactured.
MIT's Self-Assembly Lab create a process called "Liquid Printed Pneumatic," a system that uses air chambers that inflate or deflate in a stretchy material. The designs would be 3D printed and programmed to respond to getting or losing air whenever needed.
BMW wants to leverage the new technology beyond where air is most commonly deployed in cars -- the airbags. BMW officials hope to use it in inflating unique car interiors and potentially certain parts of the exterior.
"The outcome of this collaboration manifests that a new material future is imminent," said Martina Starke, head of BMW Brand Vision and BMW Brand Design at BMW Group. "There is no need to lock the car of the future into any particular shape. Interiors could even take on malleable, modular uses."
Skylar Tibbits, founder of the Self-Assembly Lab explained the technology like this in an interview with FastCompany:
"It's programming it with air. Instead of zeros and ones, you're sending different pulses of air."
The final result showcased at the V&A during its The Future Starts Here exhibit showcases two years of cross-disciplinary research and development between both BMW engineers and MIT researchers.
"We brought together a number of recent technologies such as Rapid Liquid Printing and techniques from soft robotics to achieve this adaptive material structure," Tibbits said. "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."
According to BMW executives, that adaptive material could mean a seemingly unlimited number of transformable surfaces, all tailored to human comfort, cushion, and improved performance.
"The interior could be different every time you got in, or for every person who got in," Tibbits said. He explained that foams and other materials could also be added to adjust firmness or other comfort factors. "By using pressure differential inside and out, you can make it morph around a human or object."
The project itself is the first attempt at bringing to life BMW's inflatable car concepts. Published in 2016, one idea would use moving inflatable surfaces to tell a driver when there's an obstacle on the road. Another concept uses a flexible outer skin that allows the car to morph shapes. Until now, those ideas remained a dream for BMW. Liquid Printed Pneumatics could be one of the best chances BMW has at bringing those concept cars to life.
Starke and other BMW officials have yet to comment precisely how they'll use Liquid Printed Pneumatics in car designs after the V&A showcase. While it might be years before we see this technology on the road, the MIT Self-Assembly Lab has brought decades of unique and distinctive design one step closer to becoming a reality.