What is 4D printing?

by Abdul Rehman on August 19, 2015

4D Printed ObjectsOver the course of the 30 years since its invention, 3D printing has earned the reputation of being an unpredictable technology. It surprises us every other day with novel prospects we couldn’t previously imagine. Indeed, who could possibly predict things like 3D Printed Food and Additive Manufactured Houses a decade ago? Yet, today, thanks to 3D printing, they’re a reality.

4D printing is another such surprise. Developed by the collaboration of MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, the software company Autodesk and 3D manufacturing company Stratasys, this new printing technology presents an entirely new world of possibilities to our imagination.

So what exactly is 4D printing? In simple words, it is the next step in the evolution of 3D printing which adds the dimension of time to the traditional 3D printing process. This means that through 4D printing, a 3D printed object can change its shape after it is printed, in response to water or heat.

This post-printing transformation can convert a 1D or 2D object, printed by a 3D printer, into a 3D object or a 3D printed object into a completely different 3D object. For instance, a thin 4D printed strand, may form a cube when exposed to water as shown in this video.

The secret of 4D printing lies in the special materials it uses. These materials have the unique property of self-deformation (or self-transformation) when exposed to certain environmental stimuli such as water and heat. Scientists have been researching such Self-Evolving Materials for several years.

Recently, a group of Australian researchers from University of Wollongong have created a hydrogel that can transform itself faster than other known materials. Professor Marc, the head researcher of the Australian team, explains 4D printing in the following words:

“You can now take 3D structures that are built on this (3D) printer and then use water or heat or both to allow the shapes that you’ve printed to transform into another shape over time. That process where over time a shape falls or moves into a different shape is 4D printing.”

You can see Professor Marc explain 4D printing in this YouTube video.

The major innovator in 4D printing technology is the MIT’s department Self-Assembly Lab which specializes in the research of self-assembling materials. It was Professor Skylar Tibbits, the director of Self-Assembly Lab, who first introduced the concept of 4D Printing at TED Conference  in 2013. Partnering with Self-Assembly Lab is Stratasys, a famous manufacturer of 3D printers and 3D printing materials.

The main contribution of Stratasys to 4D printing is its Connex technology through which self-transforming materials can be coupled with ordinary materials to form self-assembling 4D objects. Often in the technology industry, a piece of hardware is only as good as the software that drives it.

That’s where Autodesk, a 3D printing software giant, comes in. Project Cyborg is an Autodesk software that enables the design and simulation of 4D structures on a computer screen. Describing Project Cyborg, Professor Tibbits says:

“This software is a great demonstration of the scalability of self-assembly, a design and construction phenomena that spans from the Nano-Scale to the human scale and promises to reinvent our ways of making in the future.”

4D printing allows the manufacture of objects that transform with time. This essentially means that objects can be “programmed” to behave in certain manner without the use of complex electronics. Professor Tibbits rightly says:

“This is like Robotics without wires or motors.”

The prospects of such “programmable” self-transforming materials are numerous. According to Professor Tibbits, 4D printing will first find use in extreme environments such as space.

Manufacturing objects or building structures in space is nearly impossible because of zero gravity and extreme temperatures in space. 4D printing can solve this problem. Instead of Manufacturing New Objects in Space, astronauts can simply take 4D printed objects with them which can transform into desired objects/structures despite the harshness of space.

4D Printing-Example

Many 4D printing materials require water for their transformation. This makes these materials perfect for plumbing and sewage structures. In fact, Self-Assembly Lab is working with a Boston company, Geosyntec to make 4D printed pipes which will have the ability to expand or contract depending on the amount of water passing through them.

Self-assembling buildings is another dazzling prospect of 4D printing. Imagine an extremely long strand of 4D printing material transforming into a Complete Building in a matter of hours. Such 4D buildings would be indispensable for travellers and soldiers and may even find use in the construction industry.

Finally, in the Medical Field, 4D printing could reduce surgical procedures by enabling doctors to inject self-transforming materials into the body. Once inside, they could transform and correct the abnormality in a diseased area sparing the need to operate in order to gain access to the diseased part.

What’s so unique about 4D printing is the fact that an object can change itself into another object that looks and behaves completely differently.

While we can guess at some of the possible prospects of such an amazing capability, the real applications of this technology may still be beyond our wildest dreams.

What do you think of 4D printing and its prospects? Let us know in the Comments section. Also, please Like and Share this article with your friends and help us spread the word.

Thanks for reading.


Shapeways Gold JewelleryIf you know much about 3D printing, then there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Shapeways.

Shapeways are a visionary technology company who are synonymous with 3D printing.

Since they started business in 2007 they have established themselves worldwide as a cutting edge 3D printing company.

They enable their customers to have their own designs 3D printed in some very high quality materials, using some equally high quality 3D printing equipment.

As well as this their customers can also sell their products, which will be made and shipped by Shapeways on demand. This is a service I am yet to try myself, but I love the idea of a company who encourages you to make money from 3D printing, instead of just spending money on it as most of us do.

Why Use a 3D Printing Company Like Shapeways

Let’s just step back a little to these high quality printers and high quality printing materials. As you may well know, I’ve spent hundreds of hours designing and 3D printing stuff for this website, to help teach people how to try 3D printing for themselves, as well as how amazing it is.

There comes a time though where printing in plastic is no longer enough. Ok, so I’ve tried some of the cool composite filaments from companies like NinjaFlex and ColorFabb.

Many of these filaments, whether they’re rubber, 30% wood, 80% bronze, or glow in the dark are definitely a refreshing change from plain old PLA. However, as our design skills and imagination grow we go looking for something more exciting than printing in plastic.

Some time ago I heard about a new service from Shapeways, which allowed people like you and I to design something, prototype it using our own 3D printer (if we wish, because you don’t even need your own printer to use Shapeways), then have it professionally printed using a high quality printer before being gold plated!

I had also heard good things about this service from people who’d used it and the prices were pretty good to. To me this was what I’d been looking for, my chance to create something that is finished in 14 carat rose gold plating, rather than my usual copper spray paint or Dry Brushing.

As well as being curious I also felt it was my duty to try this for myself so I could report back on my experience to my readers. After all, if you check out my Beginners Series you’ll realise that most of what I do (including buying a MakerBot Replicator 2 in the first place) is so you can learn from my own experiences, good and bad.

What Design Tool and Model to Use

As much as I love the simplicity of Tinkercad especially for beginners, I’ve found that the control, functionality and resolution of the designs isn’t quite up to scratch for high quality items.

I have since discovered OpenSCAD which is more complex, but as a result allows more control, more function and some very high resolution designs.

OpenSCAD DesignOpenSCAD was the obvious choice for this little project, because if I’m going to have something gold plated, it has to be a good quality high resolution and easily configurable design.

Also, as we’re talking about a relatively high cost printing process here, the item needs to be small.

I decided to design a simple piece of customised jewellery for my girlfriend. I’ll be buying a rose gold chain I think to finish it off.

Here’s the design image from OpenSCAD, but before I exported it for uploading to the Shapeways website I substantially increased the quality of the curves and layers, so it was as good a finish as I could achieve.

I’m quite happy to let you have the OpenSCAD source code for free if you wish (ask in the comments below) so you can see how it was designed. You could even modify it yourself to use any word/name and have one made by Shapeways yourself!

Uploading, Checking and Ordering

The upload and ordering process was easier than I envisaged. You simply upload the .STL file and Shapeways will calculate the volume, perform some checks on the design and give you various prices for various materials and finishes.

For example, my gold plated design was about $60 to purchase, but for $1,700 I could have had it made in solid platinum! The idea was not to go over the top for now, but just to experiment with the process and report back to you, so $60 is enough for now.

There are some automated checks which take place and then some manual checks will be made by real people. I presume this takes place after ordering and when the Shapeways staff attempt to make your product.

The automated checks ensure that details, gaps, extrusions, holes in hollow items, etc are all within reasonable constraints. For example something very long and very thin might not fit within the printing area and if it did it might be very difficult to initially make in wax without it breaking.

Ok, now I’ve mentioned wax you’re probably confused, so let me briefly explain the process involved in 3D printing and plating your designs in precious metals.

The 3D Printing and Plating Process

There are some constraints on exactly what can be printed as briefly mentioned above. I won’t go into detail of this here, as you can find these constraints here on the Shapeways website where they describe the Precious Metal Plating Process in detail themselves.

These constraints are quite easy to meet and my design passed all the tests first time, for all of the materials Shapeways can make your product in.

Assuming your design meet these constraints, let’s summarise the printing and plating process so we have an appreciation of what Shapeways will do with your uploaded model:

  • The model is firstly 3D printed in wax on a high resolution printer
  • It’s then put into a container and surrounded by liquid plaster
  • Once the plaster sets, the wax is melted away leaving a plaster mold
  • Molten brass is poured into the plaster mold and left to harden
  • The plaster is then broken away and the product is polished
  • It’s then coated in a layer of palladium to provide strength
  • Finally the precious metal plating (rose gold for me) takes place

As with other blog posts I’ve written involving a third party service, my 3D Printed Watch for example, I’ve written this part immediately after designing, uploading and ordering so it’s all fresh in my mind.

3D Printed PrototypeI will now wait for the product to arrive, or possibly to receive feedback on what might need changing in my model if the manual checks reveal that some constraints haven’t been met.

Shapeways have given me an estimated delivery time of just over three weeks.

This isn’t bad considering the seven step process described above and the fact I live in the United Kingdom so it’ll need to be shipped a few thousand miles too. While I wait, I can still gaze upon the prototype I 3D printed myself in PLA plastic. It’s nothing like the finished gold plated product will be, but it’s a reminder of how amazing this technology is.

The 3D Printed Gold Jewellery Has Arrived

It’s a little earlier than the estimated delivery date and the postman has been. I wasn’t home at the time but this just meant a quick trip down the road to pick up my first ever Shapeways parcel. Yes I was excited!

On opening the parcel it was clear that this had been very well packaged with lots of those little pieces of foam for padding. There was a cool little silver box inside which in turn contained a velvety pouch to further protect the 3D printed jewellery.

Now, I mentioned earlier that this jewellery is for my girlfriend, but I didn’t mention that it was for her birthday. The truth is, after opening it and seeing it for the first time I was so excited to write about it that I couldn’t wait for her birthday.

When I published this I knew she’d see it on Facebook and Instagram so I either had to wait a month to publish this, or give her the present early. I decided on the latter so I could share this story with you right now, as I couldn’t wait a month to publish this. Yes it will cost me more money as now I have to buy another present for her birthday but at least you get to read this pretty much as it happens and I don’t have to contain my excitement any longer.

Anyway, back to the jewellery and my first impressions…

Did it Meet Expectations?

My expectations for this service were already high as I’d heard great reviews of Shapeways 3D printing and gold plating service, from some well respected people in the 3D printing world.

I wasn’t disappointed as it looked amazing and my girlfriend loved it too. I wish my photography could do it justice but it can’t and I should have had a professional photographer to photograph it. But trust me, it is really well printed, well polished and beautifully gold plated.

Looking at it you’d never guess it was 3D printed, which is testament to the high quality 3D printers and pre/post printing processes which Shapeways use.

Everyone I’ve showed it to thinks it’s amazing and it definitely makes a change from the plastic home printed objects I normally inflict on people.

I get the feeling that I’ll be using a lot more of this service and I’ve already started to design a ring for myself. What’s really interesting is that Shapeways sent me an email after the jewellery was successfully printed, stating that they’d calculated that it could also be 3D printed in these other materials with an 80% success rate:

  • Polished Brass
  • 14k Gold Plated
  • Raw Brass
  • 18k Gold Plated
  • 14K Gold
  • 14k Rose Gold
  • 14k White Gold
  • 18k Gold
  • Platinum
  • Rhodium Plated
  • Raw Bronze
  • Polished Bronze
  • Premium Silver
  • Polished Silver
  • Raw Silver

I don’t know about you but I think that’s an impressive list, so maybe I’ll try another material for my next design. I believe these are just the jewellery materials too, with their full list of materials being much bigger. It’s too large to publish here so I suggest you check the Shapeways Material List  as it’s also growing all the time.

As you know, I love everything about 3D printing and this new discovery (creating my own jewellery) only adds to the list of things I love about it. I love writing about this stuff and I love sharing it with as many people as I can.

If you want to learn the basics of 3D printing yourself, then you can do it by downloading my Beginners Guide to 3D Printing at Home eBook. Best of all, as we have just established, you don’t even need a 3D printer to design and 3D print some amazing stuff!

Please feel free to Like, Share and Comment on this article if you found it interesting.

Thanks for reading and thanks for sharing.


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