Surely you’ve heard of 3D printing, which is the printing of objects out of materials like plastic, concrete, and even steel. But did you know the technology has been around since the 1970s?
Or perhaps even more surprising is the fact that soon we will be progressing to the next stage of this technology: 4D printing.
It’s hard to believe the technology has been around that long, let alone that we’re naturally progressing to the next phase in its evolution, but it’s all true. So, what is 4D printing? And how is it different from 3D printing? We’ll break it down for you.
What Is 4D Printing?
If you break it down, 4D printing is intrinsically the same as 3D printing. You’re still using additive manufacturing to create objects using powerful printing machines, those objects are still constructed using the same basic materials, and they come out looking the same.
The difference is how those manufactured objects transform over time.
Essentially, 4D printing involves creating objects with materials that eventually change — sometimes after a reaction to various properties or triggers, sometimes just on their own.
By using technologies such as shape memory alloy, the finished product can transform or change shape entirely. An object created with shape memory alloy, for example, would change after a shift in temperature.
This technology may not seem interesting on paper, nor may its usefulness be immediately clear, but the applications are downright innovative.
What Are the Uses for 4D Printing?
4D printing can be used to create responsive objects, similar to responsive web design, that adapt to the surrounding environment.
Imagine plumbing or pipes that can expand and shrink to control the flow of water. This can possibly be achieved by using 4D printing techniques, along with choosing an appropriate material out of which to create said objects.
Skylar Tibbits, the concept creator of 4D printing, explains it best by describing a pair of 4D printed sneakers:
“If I play basketball, [the sneakers] adapt to support my ankles more. If I go on grass, they should grow cleats or become waterproof if it’s raining. It’s not like the shoe would understand that you’re playing basketball, of course, but it can tell what kind of energy or what type of forces are being applied by your foot. It could transform based on pressure. Or it could be moisture or temperature change.”
He believes that we should be able to create objects that adapt and change to meet our needs. This can be done by creating the sneakers with materials that react to certain triggers or environment changes.
Another use for this technology would be to make larger objects — like a shelter or tent — easier to carry. When you need to set up the object, you could expand it on demand. Think of it like clothes stored in a vacuum-sealed bag, except on a more innovative scale.
Recently, the US Army actually awarded a grant to the Universities of Harvard, Pittsburgh, and Illinois to explore the idea of generating self-assembling objects.
4D printed objects can be adjusted by exposing them to things like pressure changes, moisture and temperature changes, surface changes, force changes, and much more. Again, this is possible by employing materials that react to these properties.
This also explains why 4D printing is still in its infancy and is largely considered to be in a concept or experimentation phase. There have been 4D printed objects, but the kind of advanced creations we’ve been talking about here are not yet possible.
When Will 4D Printing Go Mainstream?
It’s difficult to say how long it will be until consumers can expect to make use of 4D printing techniques in their homes, similar to 3D printing now. One major obstacle involves the materials 4D printed objects would require.
The “smart” objects created during the 4D printing process are comprised of multi-material components which is something that would be difficult to duplicate at home, at least in this stage.
A materials scientist at Harvard named Jennifer Lewis explains it best:
“Active research teams exploring 4D printing require multiple materials printed together, with one material that stays rigid while another changes shape and acts like a hinge.”
We’re willing to bet that most people don’t have the tools or resources to create multi-material components at home. For now, we’ll just have to wait and see what the science world can come up with.
4D Printing’s Future Is Uncertain
4D printing no doubt sounds like a cool, new-age technology that plenty of people would enjoy using. But is there enough of a need and enough people who could realistically access the technology for this to take off?
It’s still too early to tell, but if the technology pans out in the way that we expect it to, then the answer is an absolute yes. Once 4D printing is perfected, the world is going to see a massive shift in the way objects and gadgets are designed and manufactured.
With 3D printing, everyone from medical professionals to architects and designers have found the technology useful for aspects of their daily lives. How do you feel about 4D printing? Will it be as practical or will it be a luxury tech for gimmicks?