It wasn’t so long ago that 3D printing was the new kid on the block. Now the term 4D printing is making headlines, stretching our ability to conceptualize once again. To understand 4D printing, it helps to have a better familiarity with 3D printing.

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A chain of hexagonal shapes in order to form a ball filled like hexagonal sides on it

But first: What is 3D printing?

3D printing was originally developed in 1984 by Charles Hull. However, it was 2007 before anyone other than businesses and the one ultra-techie neighbor on the block gained access to 3D printers that used filament instead of ink. That’s because they finally became affordable for the house user around that time. Since then, like most technology, 3D printers have become smaller, faster, cheaper and more versatile. 

Related: IKEA introduces new 3D-printed consumer line in Germany 

The first 3D printers were slow, meticulously producing a  single letter or a small figurine over a 12-hour window. Now we’re printing 3D houses, replacement parts, interior design pieces, furniture and so much more.

A glad piece of wood and then a fully formed wooden elephant out of the scraps

What is 4D printing?

In brief, 4D printing expands 3D printing with a fourth dimension that is temporal or relating to time. It means that the fourth “D” allows the product to change shape over time. 

This additional component will create exponential growth in printing opportunities. A fraction of that potential comes from the process itself. But in major part, it’s due to the materials that will be used once the technology is worked out. 

The materials will have the capability to come to life, responding to elements in the environment surrounding it. While 3D printing is rigid, 4D will bring movement to the final products without mechanical systems. That basically means that the smart materials used in 4D printing will be able to respond to fluctuations in heat, light, pressure and other external stimuli, while still having a foundation in the solid components introduced from 3D printing. 

Through 4D printing this hexagonal object is able to move

How does 4D printing work?

The process is a reflection of nature. Imagine how plants respond to changes in weather, such as flowers closing when it rains or releasing seeds when the seasons change. From that, you’ll get a better idea of the response capabilities of 4D-printed materials. 

The applications for 4D printing are expansive and varied. In the construction realm, it could be used to make rigid, yet flexible, pipes that expand under pressure of high-water flow and contract as needed. It can provide materials for anything from cars to rockets to artificial limbs.

Remember those dehydrated washcloths and towels that are about the size of a quarter but grow once submerged into water? Now imagine it was originally 4D printed. If it was 3D printed, it would stay in the rigid 3D form. But as a 4D-printed object, it has the ability to respond to stimuli, such as hot water, just like the growing towels. 

“This is truly a radical shift in our understanding of structures, which have up to this point, remained static and rigid (aerospace, automotive, building industries, etc.) and will soon be dynamic, adaptable and tunable for on-demand performance,” said Skylar Tibbits from The Self-Assembly Lab, MIT. “4D printing enhanced by multi-materials technology may likely revolutionize our ability to control and precisely program materials from idea-conception to printing shape-changing transformations.”

A single carbon fiber curling in multiple angles

What is possible with 4D printing?

The technology holds promise in the fight against climate change and manufacturing waste. As with 3D printing, 4D produces basically zero waste. Since the printing is commanded by software, immediate adjustments in the command prompt means there won’t be copious prototypes filling up landfills. In other words, design changes happen in keystrokes rather than creating physical waste. 

In addition to efficiency in printing design, the materials used in 4D printing offer cleaner and more sustainable options. The sky’s the limit with material selection. The few labs working to develop the systems don’t even fully grasp the possibilities.

However, considering the relatively quick advancements in 3D technology since its introduction, it’s promising to contemplate what might result from 4D technology. It could mean using completely natural materials, relying on recycled ingredients. It could also mean building anything from life-saving medical supplies to bridges without plastic. 

The technology is still in its infancy, yet the possibilities are enthralling to consider. We are looking at a future with artificial veins that expand and contract, pipes that mend themselves when cracked and the capacity to build shoes that respond to the movement of your foot. 4D printing is a viable solution for printing in outer space or even remote areas of our planet. 

The technology will also provide greater flexibility for printers. Where we are currently limited by the size of the printer, with 4D printing, products can be printed in small form and set to grow into its final shape once on location. This opens the door for chairs that expand, stents that can be inserted into the human body and programmed to open once in the right location and solutions to emergency housing. 

As futuristic as it all sounds, 4D printing will likely be part of our everyday lives in ways we’re still trying to imagine. 

Via Stulpteo and Arch Daily

Images via David Correa / Achim Menges and Self-Assembly Lab, MIT; Carbitex LLC; Autodesk Inc.