What is 4D printing technology?

February 14, 20194 minute read

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3D printing has taken the world by storm in recent years. You’ve seen it used to create everything from cars to homes—and even tools for astronauts to use on the International Space Station. But did you know about 4D printing technology? That’s right: Printing innovations are about to enter the fourth dimension.

Here’s a look at what 4D printing is, what it does, and why some experts believe this exciting new printing innovation could have an impact on the world over the next 20 years that’s more profound than all the innovations from the Industrial Revolution combined.

Creating self-assembling objects with 4D printing technology

Printing has had one static characteristic until now: Once you print a document or an object, it retains its shape and does not change. The etymology of the word “print” dates back to the thirteenth century, when it meant “impression” or “mark,” much like it does today. Ever since 3D printing arrived on the scene, printing has also come to include the creation of three-dimensional objects, such as prosthetic limbs.

Get ready, because your understanding of what printing means is going to change again. With 4D printing, you can program 3D-printed solid components to change into other shapes once exposed to specific environmental conditions, such as temperature, light, or humidity, for example. The fourth dimension is transformation over time with the ability to autonomously change form—and it has huge implications for the future of engineering design.

For example, furniture companies could use it to create a table that self-assembles once you touch a part (a feature that legions of Ikea fans would no doubt appreciate). Aviation firms could also 4D print an airplane wing that transforms itself into a special aerodynamic shape upon reaching a certain wind speed.

If you like Star Trek, this shape-shifting may remind you of Odo, the changeling from Deep Space Nine who can morph into anything from a painting to a chair whenever he feels like it. Of course, 4D creations aren’t sentient, like Odo; they can only change their shape under certain circumstances and must be composed of a single material that’s programmed in advance—which is still pretty cool.

Advancing today’s printing innovations from 3D to 4D

How is this even possible? According to TechCrunch, 4D printing technology is basically an evolution of the 3D printing innovations currently disrupting industries ranging all the way from construction to medicine. Like 3D printing, 4D printing also uses additive manufacturing technology to print successive layers to create a three-dimensional object.

The key difference is that the 4D printing process uses a special material that can also be programmed to self-assemble and change its shape later on upon encountering heat, ice, water, movement, pressure, or a certain type of chemical. You can use a 4D printer to program a precise geometric code into the material based on the object and its dimensions, incorporating measurements that dictate how the object will respond when coming into contact with specific external stimuli.

Jaw-dropping printing innovations coming to you in 4D

This 4D shape-shifting sounds like it’s straight out of science fiction, but what are some other ways it can be applied in real life? The pharmaceutical industry could tap 4D printing to design stents that open up blood vessels when they reach a particular location in the human body.

The construction industry could potentially 4D print bricks that change their shape to accommodate more or less stress on a wall. This self-assembling capability could play a clutch role during a natural disaster, when construction materials that autonomously turn into shelters could become humanitarian heroes. According to a Smithsonian.com article featuring Skylar Tibbits, codirector and founder of MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, 4D printing could even be used in the future to create what he calls “adaptive infrastructure” in space.

Back here on Earth, you may eventually be able to buy regular old street shoes that transform themselves into running shoes when you go out for a jog or sprout cleats when you take the field for a softball game. In the 4D future, you may even be able to put on clothes that autonomously develop a waterproof layer to keep you dry on a rainy day.

Get ready for the 4D-printed future

Of course, 4D printing still is a bleeding edge technology. 4D printers and the materials they use are expensive, so it’ll be a while before the world begins welcoming 4D-printed objects into offices and homes en masse. But there’s no question that 4D printing is a big deal. It’ll play a key role in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, fundamentally transforming the way people think about – and do with – printing for generations to come.

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