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4D Printing: An Easy Beginners Guide & Overview

4d printing

So know about 3D printing… but what’s 4D printing? In this article, you’ll learn what 4D printing can do for you. Also, you get an overview on the most important 4D printing research companies. 

What is 4D Printing?

4D printing is a variety of 3D printing. Basically, 4D printing is a renovation of 3D printing wherein special materials to print objects that change shape post-production. It is currently developed by industry leaders and research facilities like MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, Stratasys, and Autodesk.


So 4D Printing Is Basically Just 3D Printing? Then what’s so Special About it?

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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 this technology could be!

4D Printing: The 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 “genetic code” whenever you want to have it triggered.

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4D Printing Company #1: Self-Assembly Lab

Meanwhile, at MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab a young man named 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.

Tibbits sees all kinds of future applications for 4D printing, 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 ink, can change 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 can change depending on the situation of their environments. Wyss has replicated the process by developing 4D-printed hydrogel composites which 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 that 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 and showing 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?

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 this technology has come, from 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 this 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.