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What is 4D Printing and How WIll It Change the World?

Technological advances are helping almost every industry to change the way they function. New technologies can improve the speed of manufacturing, benefit people’s health, reduce the cost of industrial processes, and much more. Scientists, engineers, and inventors are continually searching for innovative ways to improve on the technological advancements that they have already made. One of the latest technological advances is 4D printing, and this has the potential to benefit many industries and various aspects of life. Here is everything you need to know about 4D printing and its potential uses in different industries.

What is 4D Printing?

To understand 4D printing you must first understand 3D printing. According to ALL3DP, 3D printing involves the creation of physical objects by using blueprints and building the object a layer at a time. 3D printing is also known as ‘Additive Manufacturing. 4D printing is based on the same technology, but the 3D print can change its shape. Special materials are used for this process so that once the object is printed, it can transform into a different shape when it is triggered by a form of energy, such as water, wind, or heat. One way to think of 4D printing is by using the example of a box. Imagine that the box is flat and then it assembles itself when it is triggered by stimuli before folding itself flat again when it is no longer needed.

Who Has Invented 4D Printing?

There is not one single inventor of 4D printing. It is something that is being worked on by many research facilities. However, there are some leaders in this field, including the Self Assembly Lab at MIT, the 3D software company Autodesk, and the 3D printing manufacturer Stratasys. Internationally, there is also some fantastic research into the potential of 4D printing in Singapore and Australia.

Can You Buy a 4D Printer?

Unfortunately, you cannot go out and buy yourself a 4D printer at this time. It is something that is still in the developmental stages and they are generally only found in research laboratories or at specialist companies. However, it is possible that you could buy your own 4D printer in the future.

What Are the Industries That Could Benefit from 4D Printing?

Machine Design points out that 3D printing once seemed like science fiction, but that it is now a mainstream activity that is used in a variety of industries. It is likely that 4D printing has the same potential and could benefit many industries. Some of the industries that are likely to benefit from 4D printing the most include health and medicine, agriculture, manufacturing, robotics, and construction. It is also possible that 4D printing will have uses in art and media. The possibilities for its uses are almost endless, so it has the potential to change the world.

4D Printing and Medicine

Medicine and healthcare is one of the industries that could potentially benefit the most from 4D printing. There are already examples of 4D printing being used to create biomedical splints that can adapt to the environment. For example, doctors at the University of Michigan’s CS Mott Children’s Hospital developed an airway splint using 4D printing. This splint stops the baby’s airway from collapsing as it expands when the child grows. The splint was created for use in the neonatal intensive care unit to help babies until their airways are strong enough to support themselves.
Now, the focus is on creating small, implantable devices says Genetic Engineering and Technology News. The aim is to create a small implantable device for diagnosis and treatment that is soft and flexible. This means it will be less painful to insert and minimally invasive. Moving forward, there is the potential for doctors and researchers to create even more amazing and beneficial innovations. There is hope that 4D printing could become the way forward for creating artificial organs for those who need an organ transplant. Another area of medicine that could benefit is prosthetics, as prosthetic limbs made using 4D printing could improve patient comfort and also act as a solution for children with prosthetics who are still growing and need their prosthetics to adapt.

4D Printing and Manufacturing

The ways in which it could become possible to sue 4D printing in manufacturing processes are mind-blowing, especially when this technology is combined with robotics and AI. There is some talk of creating boxes that expand on their own for packing and then refold for reuse. Another possibility is the use of 4D printing to create components for machinery that will simplify production processes and save time and money. According to Digitalist Magazine, there is already research underway that could lead to transformations in the production processes. Christopher Guberan, a product designer, is working with MIT to develop a self-assembling shoe. The aim of his research is to transform production processes that are complex and labor-intensive. There is the possibility of using 4D printing techniques in almost every aspect of the manufacturing process once more is understood about this technology and it is more widely available.

4D Printing, Aerospace, and Aviation

Aerospace is another industry that could benefit significantly from the use of 4D printing, and there have already been advances using this technology. Researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA have developed a metal fabric that is flexible. They have called it space chain mail, and it is intended for use on large antennas that shield spacecraft from meteorites. The antennas can also capture small objects that have originated from the surface of other planets. The researchers at the U.S. space agency believe that there are further applications for the smart material they have created using 4D printing. In aviation, Airbus has collaborated with MIT to develop an inlet component using 4D printing. The inlet component is made from programmable carbon fiber. This adjusts automatically to control the airflow which, in turn, allows the engine of the aircraft to cool. Using this component would replace the heavy mechanical control systems. A further advantage of using the new components is that it reduces fuel consumption, thus also reducing fuel costs. Airbus has predicted that the 4D printed components have the potential to form the basis of a faster and lighter fuselage.

4D Printing and Robotics

Both robotics and 4D printing are areas of huge interest to researches in the 21st century. There are plans to combine the two technologies across several industries to take advantage of what each can offer. Matt Griffin, a futurist, has even argued that in the future, robots could potentially design, print, assemble, and 4D print themselves. Furthermore, 4D printing could help robotics experts to make advances in soft robotics, says 3D Natives. Soft robotics aims to create robots using compliant materials that are similar to those found in living organisms. Using 4D printing will help engineers to create components that move and behave more like living organisms than anything they have created so far.

4D Printing, Construction, and Architecture

The fact that 4D printing is about predictive, strategic, and adaptive materials is the reason why this technology has so much potential in construction and architecture, says Design Exchange Magazine. This site notes that 4D printing is potentially very useful for construction in areas with extreme climates. It could also become useful for large-scale infrastructure projects that involve a large workforce and the use of construction machinery and vehicles. It is believed that using 4D printing in these situations would potentially improve the efficiency of construction. Engineering firm GEOSyntec is currently developing pipes that are constructed using programmable materials. They are designed to create their own water pressure. This would bring responsive functionality to the construction process. Design Exchange Magazine also talks about the potential future applications of 4D printing in construction. Some of these ideas include walls that expand to become thicker at colder times of the year and roofs that change to include drainage depending on precipitation levels. Although these technologies have not been created yet, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that it could happen in the future. Another aspect of construction and architectural design that could benefit from using 4D printing is energy consumption If 4D printing was used, then the energy needed for construction would decrease. Similarly, design features in a building could help to conserve energy by adapting to regulate temperatures throughout the year. Of course, there are also some potential challenges and issues relating to using 4D printing for architecture and construction. For example, once a transformation is triggered, there are possible problems before, during, and after the transformation process that you cannot control. Another issue is that an object may become weaker the more times it undergoes a transformation and this could pose health and safety risks in the future.

4D Printing and Art

4D printing also has applications for art and media, says This Is Colossal. Nicole Hone, an industrial designer, has led the way in using this technology for artwork. She used modeling software to 4D print a multi-material piece of art. This art consisted of futuristic aquatic plants called hydrophytes. A film was also created that shows how the hydrophytes are activated by pneumatic inflation in the water. This transforms the plants into dynamic organisms and gives the impression that the plants are fighting each other. This piece is an interesting combination of nature and technology. Hone created this piece when she was asked to redesign the National Aquarium in New Zealand. As part of the redesign, she wanted to create a future-focused and interactive installation that included moving models.

4D Printing and the Food Industry

One industry that it may surprise you to learn is using 4D printing is the food industry. However, Agristats says that this is something that is already happening. Over the last two decades, 3D printing has played an integral part in the production of food. Now, the technology has been taken further and food is being created using 4D printing technology. This is the innovation of scientists working in the MIT Media Lab, who have used 2D food to create 3D food, and then advanced the technology further to make 4D food. The 4 D process involves using 2D food strips that fold into different shapes when triggered by water absorption to create 3D shapes. As there is a process of movement involved, these 3D shapes are also considered 4D. The main benefit of using this process in food production is that the manufacturers can pack the food flat, thus reducing the packaging volume needed. In turn, this will reduce the costs of the packaging process.

4D Printing - The Final Verdict

4D printing is an advancement of 3D printing technology that creates 3D shapes that can change in form when triggered by environmental stimuli. Although this technology is predominantly still in the research stages, it has already been used for several useful applications. In the future, it could play an important part in innovations in many industries and this could change the world. Just some of the industries to which it could make the most difference include medicine and healthcare, aeronautics and aviation, construction and architecture, art and media, manufacturing, and food production. 4D printing will be used in different ways in each of these industries, therefore the benefits of using this technology will vary from one industry to the next. It is important to note that there are also some potential issues related to using 4D printing, and these are something that scientists, engineers, and researchers are working to overcome. It is possible that the researchers will find even more uses for 4D printing and that it will become as important to many industries has 3D printing has become in the last decade.

Liz Flynn

Written by Liz Flynn

Liz Flynn has worked as a full-time writer since 2010 after leaving a career in education. She finds almost all topics she writes about interesting, but her favorite subjects are travel and food. Liz loves the process of researching information, learning new things, and putting into words what others who share her interests might like to read. Although she spends most of her time writing, she also enjoys spending time with her husband and four children, watching films, cooking, dining out, reading, motorsports, gaming, and walking along the beach next to her house with her dog.

Read more posts by Liz Flynn

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