Now scientists at MIT have found a way to 3D print objects that can change shape almost instantaneously in response to magnetic fields. So far the researchers have created a few demonstration objects with the new technology, which uses plastic “3D ink” infused with tiny iron particles and an electromagnet-equipped printing nozzle. “You can imagine this technology being used in minimally invasive surgeries,” said Xuanhe Zhao, a professor of engineering at MIT and a member of the team that developed the 3D-printed shape-shifting technology. The technology might one day make it possible to 3D print entire soft robots, Zhao said. These could have information stored as magnetic data directly inside their structural materials, instead of needing additional electronics. “The MIT soft robotics development is very cool … It’s an important step in terms of being able to control materials,” said Jim McGuffin-Cawley, an engineering and materials science professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, who was not involved with the MIT project. MIT is releasing free software and a recipe for its magnetic ink so that other scientists around the world can use the technology and print their own shape-shifting materials, Zhao said.

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