At a Glance – 4D Printing

Adding an extra dimension to manufacturing

Now 3D printing has finally gained traction as a reliable production method, in comes yet another innovative technology to disrupt the way we create and interact with physical objects. 4D printing represents a technological progression from 3D printing. Simply put, 4D printed objects change shape post-production when exposed to certain triggers. This can include heat, water, light and electricity. The concept of 4D printing was first revealed in a 2013 TED talk by Skylar Tibbits, who currently heads up the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT. Alongside MIT, 3D printing giants Stratasys are pioneering what they describe as a radical shift in rapid prototyping. They aren’t the only ones, either. Universities across the globe are investing in 4D printing for a wide range of applications.

At the moment, 4D printing is confined to R&D teams and is not available to consumers. 4D printing can be carried out using traditional 3D printers, but its the materials used which give 4D printed items their reactive properties. The most common materials used to date are shape-memory polymers and hydrogels. Looking forward, researchers will rely on developments in Materials Science for new ink options, making products even smarter.

Much like 3D printing, the scope for 4D printed things is huge. One example is a delivery box that folds down when exposed to a certain trigger (an electrical current, for instance). This may sound incredibly simple, but even this has massive implications for business. Folding and assembling boxes is a labour-intensive task for any company that ships or receives physical stock. Remove this task and you save hours of time, not to mention money and space. It’s easy to imagine how this capability could reach entirely different levels literally, in fact, in the form of self-assembling structures and furniture.

4D printing has incredible disruptive potential in just about any industry you can think of, and could well be an integral part of emerging new technologies like smart wearables for use in business and smart cities.

Take a look at MIT’s self folding cube here: