The Next Big Thing: 4D Printing


What is 4D printing?

There was a time when the 3D printer concept boggled the mind, now the Royal Mail has launched its own 3D printing service, and the technology is readily available for home use. It’s the potential of the next stage, 4D printers, which is now the exciting leaders across a number of industries.

To grasp 4D printing we must first define its predecessor. 3D printers create solid, three-dimensional objects through additive processes, or layering. The idea with 4D printers is similar, however, the technology creates objects that transform and reshape independently. The fourth dimension, therefore, is time, as objects are printed that self-adapt, and have the ability to transform embedded within them.

Organisations like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), are working with printed structures that can expand, stretch and fold when exposed to energy from mediums like water and heat.

MIT’s ‘computational architect’ Skylar Tibbits, who has started a ‘self-assembly’ lab which looks to develop programmable materials for the built environment, spoke on the subject for TED.

He said: “The idea behind 4D printing is that you take multi-material 3D printing, and you add a new capability which is transformation…, the parts can transform from one shape to another shape, directly on their own. This is like robotics without wires or motors.”

What can it do for the world?

4D printing has enormous potential; printed self-evolving structures can be programmed to react and adapt and therefore solve problems without the need for humans.

MIT imagines a range of applications that can adapt to heat or moisture to improve comfort or add functionality, like “clothes and footwear that optimise their form and function by reacting to changes in the environment”.

Potential also lies in adaptive infrastructure as well as healthcare; human implants could be printed that react independently inside the body without the need for medically trained humans.

Tibbits’ TED talk concluded by looking at where he thought there could be near-term application of 4D printing. First off, he highlighted space and extreme environments as potential areas, since the conditions can be too hostile for humans to work in.

He explained: “We’re trying to design new scenarios for space that have fully reconfigurable and self-assembling structures”. He added that there is also work being done in infrastructure with water piping: “We’re developing a new paradigm for piping; imagine if water pipes could expand or contract to change capacity or change flow rate, maybe even undulate like peristalsis to move the water themselves. This isn’t expensive pumps or valves this is a completely programmable and adaptive pipe on its own.”

When time is added to the 3D printing model, the opportunities seem endless.



Photo credit: MrT HK from flickr