4D printing: what is it?

4D printing takes its inspiration from the principle of self-assembly which is not a new concept. Chances are you have heard of molecular self-assembly where molecules come together to form complex structures without human intervention in any way. It’s a way of doing things used in nanotechnology as well.

This principle is taken up by 4D printing by bringing it to the upper scale. If it’s possible for small structures on a microscopic scale to fit together on their own, why not imagine it on larger objects printed in 3D?

So 3D printing makes objects that keep their fixed shapes, 4D changes their shapes but also their colors, their size, the way they move, etc. It uses materials already recognized in the industry known as “smart” materials that have been programmed to change under the influence of an external factor like a well-known example: temperature. We therefore just add this code to the material to affect the printed part.

Bastien E. Rapp, President of Process Technology Laboratory NeptunLab, explains; “4D printing is the functional form of 3D printing. Instead of printing only physical structures, we can now print functions. It’s like embedding a piece of code into a material – once triggered, it does what you programmed it to do. “

Small History

During a speech at the TED conference in Long Beach (California), February 26  2013. Skylar Tibbits, research director at MIT Self Assembly Lab, unveiled 4D printing. Its development was done with the collaboration of the Israeli manufacturer of 3D printers Stratasys. This new printing technology allows objects to change after printing, it adapts. Autodesk 3D design and visualization software publisher is also involved in the project.

He then speaks of 4D printing, explaining that it is possible to add a new characteristic to a 3D printing material, namely the capacity for transformation over time. The material could change shape by itself, without any human intervention but simply by the effect of an external factor such as light, heat, vibration, etc.

What possibility can we see there?

Several areas would see an advantage as much in the manufacture of adaptable products for each consumer or structures that adjust to climate change.

One of his ideas for Skylar Tibbits was to use 4D printing to create smart pipes: they would adapt by changing their shape depending on the volume of water they contain as well as when something would happen underground. This would avoid digging them up and changing them, which is very expensive.

4D printing attracts many areas of interest, one of its big fans is medicine. It would offer the possibility of creating tailor-made, intelligent and scalable devices: for example, by printing an implant in 4D, we could more easily control its condition and viability once integrated by the patient. This style of printing would allow cells to adapt to a human body depending on its temperature, for example.

Imagine! A drug printed in 4D that could release its substance depending on the patient’s body temperature. In fact, this is one of Dr. Fang’s research at MIT that explains; “We want to use body temperature as a trigger. If we can design polymers properly, we may be able to create a drug delivery device that will not release the drug until a fever develops. “

Another sector that is interested is that of transport in the broad sense, be it the automobile or the aeronautics market. You were introduced to the inflatable material developed by BMW and MIT, changing shape and size under the effect of air pulses. It is an interesting material for designing future tires, for example, capable of self-repairing in the event of a puncture or of adapting to the most extreme weather conditions. Beyond cars, we can also talk about airplanes. A component printed in 4D could react to atmospheric pressure or changes in temperature, and therefore modify its function.

Finally, 4D printing is a must for all applications that require a high degree of customization because it is possible to program the material according to our needs, the printed object will necessarily respond to it at the given moment. A key point for all consumer goods. Imagine clothes that take the actual shape of our body, furniture that folds and unfolds to save space, etc.