3D printing which is formally known as “additive manufacturing”, is being used in an extraordinarily wide range of applications such as human organs, wings of airplanes, nuclear weapons and etc. In fact, a 3D modelling program, such as AutoCAD, design static objects in three dimensions through additive processes in which successive layers of material are laid down under computer control. We can 3D print objects, that we could even 3D print spare parts of an object and assemble them later, but what about taking all of this to the next level? What about 3D-printed objects that are able to change on their own?
4D printing is a new process and adds the capability of programming the fundamental materials used in 3D printing. 4D printing creates objects with dynamics and performance capabilities- that are, they are able to change their form or function after fabrication. These objects can be assembled, disassembled, and then reassembled to form macro scale objects of desired shape and multifunctionality.
4D printing develops materials that can change properties and characteristics based on changes in the environment—like temperature. The changes could let materials self-assemble thus speeding up manufacturing and reducing labor requirements.
Credit: Self-Assembly Lab, MIT
4D printing is a new project in development that has come out of the unique research collaboration between the MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, the R&D departments and the Stratasys Education. This is a unique research that focuses on the development of self-assembly type of technologies meant to function in the case of large-scale structures. Those who are aware of the latest printing technologies are already thinking of forgetting all about 3D printing and focusing on 4D printing which can change everything. Scientists at MIT are already using the new technology that has been developed to print responsive objects which are capable of adapting to their surroundings individually.
With 3D printing you can make a static object, whereas this is not the case with 4D printing. Indeed, by printing intelligence into the object, you allow it to change overtime, according to a new environment or a different way of use. Technically, 4D printing is about feeding a 3D printer with a geometric code based on the object’s measurements that programs the way it should transform when facing outside forces like water, movements or temperature change. The code determines then the angles, the number of times and the direction at which a material should curl or bend.
Still a challenge at the human scale, 4D printing has a lot of potential though. Using self-assembling materials could be a solution in environments with extreme conditions where conventional construction is too expensive or not feasible. Smart materials could make a difference in a lot of industries such as the military, the marine and the automotive ones or even in the sportswear area.
4D technology and equipment is expected to grow rapidly in the healthcare, aerospace, defense, and automotive industries after its commercialization, according to a market-research report by Frost & Sullivan, Advances in 4-D Printing. The report also says that 4D printing faces several long-term and short-term challenges including high initial costs and the need for standardization. 4D printing could create a range of products from automotive parts to human organs. Benefits of 4D printing include: increased capabilities of the printed products; new applications from adaptive materials; added manufacturing efficiency; and, reduced manufacturing cost and carbon footprint.
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