From its earliest origins, printing has sparked revolutions. Information sharing transformed overnight when Gutenberg developed the printing press in the 15th century. Ideas could spread globally faster than ever through mass-produced texts.
While book printing is a landmark technology dating back decades, more recent innovations like 3D and 4D printing can potentially transform the world. In this post, we will explore the concept of 4D printing technology and discuss promising areas of research that could help advance this exciting new frontier.
What Is 4D Printing?
In 4D printing, a fourth dimension of time is added to models. A 3D-printed object maintains a static shape and properties, but a 4D-printed object can transform or change its shape or properties over time.
In 4D printing, specially designed smart materials like hydrogel resins and active polymers are used as the printing material. The materials are programmed to autonomously morph into a different predetermined shape when exposed to a particular stimulus later on, like self-assembling furniture, garments that transform based on weather conditions, and materials that heal cracks as naturally as skin. This allows 4D-printed objects to become dynamic, ‘living’ creations that can move, assemble, repair, or disassemble depending on the programming within the smart materials.
Potential Future Applications
Here are some potential ways 4D technology could be used in the future:
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory researchers have started investigating what 4D printing can do. Polit Casillas used 4D printing to create small squares of material like chain mail armor. The printed material can reflect heat, fold without breaking, and resist stretching and tearing.
In the future, it may protect spaceships from meteorites. It could also insulate a spacecraft visiting icy moons like Europa. It's possible that in the future, these materials could help shield spacecraft from meteorites, be used in astronaut spacesuits, or assist in collecting samples on planetary surfaces.
In bioprinting, researchers print cells and then let them grow together into tissues. The cells must stay alive to produce the suitable proteins. While fully functional printed organs are still far in the future, progress is being made. In 2022, scientists bioprinted and implanted a human ear using the patient’s own cartilage cells.
Manufacturing and Logistics
4D printing can help the logistics/supply chain sector by reducing the costs of manufacturing and transporting goods. Objects printed with it have self-assembly, self-expanding, and self-repairing abilities, which help reduce costs and streamline production like never before.
Furniture and Fashion
With 4D printing, flat boards or panels could be created that are programmed to automatically fold or transform into finished furniture pieces once activated by a stimulus. This would overcome the size limitations of 3D printers. For example, a flat board printed with smart materials might curl up into the finished shape of a chair simply by getting wet or being exposed to light.
Another idea is creating clothing that can change or adapt based on environmental conditions or user activity. For example, shoes printed with shape-memory materials might reshape their form once a person starts running. This could provide better comfort and support as feet and muscles work differently during exercise than walking.
4D printing hints at all sorts of intriguing possibilities on the horizon. While some of these ideas sound straight out of science fiction today, technology is steadily advancing. There's work still to be done, yet each new advancement edges us closer to a world of shapeshifting realities. With continued progress in both research and creative visions, we can make self-altering designs a reality.