You’ve probably already heard about 3D printing and the splashes it’s making with manufacturers and the DIY crowd. But did you know that 4D printing is approaching and set to blow 3D out of the water? According to researchers, this new technology will involve materials that can construct themselves and adapt to different circumstances. This will mean major changes for a world that is already seeing limitations of 3D printing, which presently only works with softer materials and static products. At some point, there will be no limit to what can be made, or rather, what can be made to make itself.
4D Printing Basics
4D printing has its roots in biotechnology, which has made huge advances in recent years. Scientists have already interchanged DNA to make everything from pest-resistant crops to mice that glow in the dark. Now, MIT researchers are working on essentially programming materials to shape themselves. This project is headed by research scientist Skylar Tibbits, who is continuing to seek funding from manufacturers interested in the possibilities of this technology. Although 3D printing has already resulted in complex objects, its time and size constraints have prevented it from being used with certain materials and sizes of projects. 4D printing eliminates these barriers because it has the potential to make materials build objects for mankind and adapt in response to environmental cues.
Implications for Manufacturers
This new technology could quickly destroy the limits presently faced by manufacturers, who price their goods based on the types of machines and manpower necessary to produce them and can’t offer goods that change in response to consumer needs. The MIT lab has already inserted the ability to transform into 3D-printed objects. In the future, scientists plan to create materials that change shape and size when they encounter, for example, vibration and certain temperatures. Items that must be produced in many different sizes and shapes, such as water piping, could potentially expand, contract and bend according to building needs in the future. Of course, this only touches the surface of what’s possible. Some speculate that eventually, 4D buildings and vehicles could construct themselves and change shape and size to accommodate a host of uses.
Stratasys, a company that has helped lead the 3D printing revolution, is already getting involved in 4D research to figure out what types of materials can be used for self-assembly. The company’s scientists have already made a material that expands when it contacts water, and the objects used were created on the company’s own 3D printers. This demonstrates the beginnings of what is possible. However, future applications could include NASA space station construction, which is currently limited due to the difficulty of transporting and constructing anything in space. The future of manufacturing, in space or otherwise, appears to lie in flexibility rather than anything static, which inevitably needs human fitting and fixing.
While 4D printing is gaining momentum, the limits of 3D printing haven’t even been fully realised yet. As the materials compatibility and precision of 3D printers is improved, possibilities in 4D printing will only be boosted. Ultimately, the types of creations made by manufacturers as well as consumers will only be limited by the imagination and programming ability necessary to tell materials what to do.
If you need more details about 3d or 4d printing, ask your favourite printing company.