The world of manufacturing is starting to tip upside down because of 3D printing. Rather than use specialized tooling and dedicated production lines, these devices use plastics, resins, and even metal to create objects and parts on the fly. Electronic design files become the molds.

The systems are still relatively slow, but 3D printing is being used in prototyping and short-run products.

But if things aren't moving fast enough for you, here's the next stage: 4D printing. The next step, 4D printing refers to combining 3D printing with self-assembly technologies to create items flexibly. Print out a part and then watch it pull itself together. Here's an example out of an MIT research lab.

In this case, the block is made out of two layered materials: one rigid, one that expands 50 times in water. The flat plate goes into the water. The expanding layer pushes against the rigid layer and the energy forces the sections to fold into place.

The technology isn't just a laboratory curiosity. Stratasys, a 3D printer manufacturer, is working with MIT's Self-Assembly Lab on exploring the practical and commercial possibilities.

Old-line CAD vendor Autodesk is also looking at the practical implications, including a self-assembling chair and cancer-fighting robots. The company is working on a massive cloud-based set of platforms for modeling, simulation, and design that would make analyzing where and how materials would fold a relatively simple task that would previously have taken PhD-level expertise.

One vision of Self-Assembly Lab Director Skylar Tibbits is a building that can change over time. The idea is that a building could put itself together or even modify its shape in reaction to the environment. For example, you could conceive of a building that might swing around growing shrubbery or lower its center of gravity in case of an earthquake.

The benefits of combining 3D printing with self-assembly could be huge: you could ultimately reduce the amount of labor needed in making product--perhaps the amount of time it takes as well. But what will it mean for product design and your business? Stay tuned. This is a new technology that will take a lot of work and experimenting to understand, even when it is more thoroughly developed.