Over 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.
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.
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