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4D Printing – All You Need to Know

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by Matthew Young
September 4, 2017

 What is 4D printing? How does a 4D printer work? Read our essential guide to learn more about this amazing technology.

In the wild and wonderful world of technology, there is always a new trending topic. Right now, 4D printing becomes the hot new topic. In this article, we try to give you an overview on 4D printing, it’s technology, uses and implications.

  1. What is 4D Printing?
  2. Who Invented 4D Printing?
  3. How Does a 4D Printer Work?
  4. 4D Printing: You Need Trigger Mechanisms
  5. 4D Printing Companies
  6. 4D Printing: What’s Next?

What is 4D Printing?

3D printing, also known as “Additive Manufacturing”, turns digital blueprints to physical objects by building them layer by layer. 4D printing is pretty much the same technology. With one big difference: It uses special material and digital designs, so that your 3D print is able to change its shape.

So, basically, 4D printing is a renovation of 3D printing wherein special materials to print objects that change shape post-production.

Who Invented 4D Printing?

4D printing is currently developed by industry leaders and research facilities. As of 2017, the most important 4D printing companies are MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, 3D printing manufacturer Stratasys, and 3D software company Autodesk.

The technology is still pretty much in research and development. In some labs or prototyping facilities, 4D printing is already used. But as a consumer, you can’t just walk into a store and buy a “4D printer” or get a license to “4D print” something.

How Does a 4D Printer Work?

4d printing

Imagine having a box that was printed with a 3D printer. That alone in itself is cool, but imagine if that box could automatically flatten itself for packing once it was impacted by some stimuli. It almost sounds silly when we just consider the impact of a box going from 3D to 2D (by flattening itself), but the impact that simple things like these can have in the business world is massive.

For example, let us assume that a trucking company (we’ll call them Tucker Trucking for fun) has a warehouse where they store all of their shipping boxes. Whenever this trucking company receives a shipment of goods, they remove the goods from the boxes for delivery to their individual sites, and then they flatten the boxes to ship them back out to their departure point so that they can be re-used for other shipments.

Now, imagine that this same company flips 5,000 trucks in a day. So, they have to hire 200 people to constantly break down the boxes for shipment back out. At $10/hour, assuming a 7-hour working day, Tucker Trucking is paying $14,000/day to these basic labor employees.

So, by having boxes that flatten themselves upon stimulus, such a company could save approximately $5 million every single year! And this is just one example of how useful 4D printing could be!

4D Printing: You Need Trigger Mechanisms

In 4D printing, you need some stimuli or trigger to start the transformation. These can include water, heat, light, electrical currents. There are other forms of triggers, some of which have to be explored in depth through research. Of course, you need special materials that are able to react to these triggers.

Of course, you need special materials that are able to react to these triggers. It’s making the objects “programmable” and execute their 3d printed “genetic code” whenever you want to have it triggered.


4D Printing Companies

4D Printing Company #1: Self-Assembly Lab

Meanwhile, at MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, Assistant Professor Skylar Tibbits is working on taking 4D printing to the next level. As he states in his TED talks, Tibbits has always been fascinated with the capabilities of 3D printing. But he wanted to know how someone could get an object to change shape (i.e. what 4D printing allows for) with accuracy and precision.

In 2014, MIT approved a grant for Tibbits to open his new Self-Assembly Printing Lab. Since then, Tibbits is working on creating a computer system that allows geometry inputs to measure how 3D printed objects will be able to change post-print. He also publishes a quarterly 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing Journal and offers scientific insights to a lot of 3D printing topics.

Tibbits sees all kinds of future applications for 4D printing. They range from sneakers that change how they fit on your feet based on what activities you are doing to or how clothing changes composition based on the weather.

4D Printing Company #2: Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering

At Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, a team of scientists is studying a way that a special ink, known as hydrogel in. It changes shape and form when stimulated with water.

Jennifer Lewis, Sc.D., L. Mahadevan, Ph.D., and Ralph Nuzzo, Ph.D. make up this team of exceptional scientists.

Hydrogel ink works by allowing the objects that it prints on to change shape to form new structures which are similar to those found in flowers. The tissue microstructures and compositions of different plants change depending on the situation of their environments.

Wyss has replicated the process by developing 4D-printed hydrogel. Its composites are programmed to contain precise swelling, allowing 3D-printed flowers to change shape when exposed to water and other environmental changes. These composites containing specific cellulose fibrils derived from wood – that resemble the same microstructures that allow plants to change shape – are capable of mimicking the changes that plant organs undergo in response to humidity, temperature, and other environmental stimuli.

This is a huge advancement because it allows for materials of varying compositions to be used in a printing process to achieve specific, measurable, accurate geometric results moving forward in various industries that may employ 4D printing in the future (think construction).

4D Printing Company #3: University of Wollongong

At the University of Wollongong in Australia, Professor Marc in het Panhuis and a team of researchers have created the first 4D-printed water valve. It shuts when exposed to hot water and re-opens when hot temperatures subside by using a hydrogel ink that responds rapidly to heat.

The team demonstrated the functioning of this water valve by pouring hot water through it. They showed how it closed instantaneously and then re-opened when cooler water was pumped through it.

While this sort of process is young in nature, the team hopes that it can be put to multiple useful practices in reality in the biotechnology and medical fields in the intermediate future.

4D Printing: What’s Next?

4D printing

As was mentioned above, 4D printing is in the adolescent stages of becoming a science. However, there are a few concentrated groups of scientists across the globe who believe that the practicality of 4D printing may become a reality and one of the fast growing technologies in the near or medium-term future.

There are a variety of examples that truly show how far 4D printing technology has come. Think of simplistic folding objects to programmable shapeshifting materials and hydrogel composites. Years of research and testing will eventually lead to amazing inventions, such as adaptive water pipes and bricks, self-assembling structures, and even 4D printed soft robots.

The myriad of uses that can come from 4D printing technology are very enticing. So make sure to keep your eye on this new and engaging industry in the coming years as new developments facilitate the betterment of our lives in this wonderful world of tomorrow.

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