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4D Printing?

3D printing has come a long way since its inception three decades ago. It is being used to design houses on Mars and construct entire neighborhoods. 3D printers aren’t just limited to plastics, they can print metals, resins, ceramics, biological materials and more, sometimes all in the same object, they can manufacture designs that could have never been implemented before. 3D-printed objects share one common element. Once they’ve been printed, they can’t be changed; until now.

4D printing is a growing subset of 3D printing that uses smart materials that can react to external stimuli. Things like heat, water, light or electricity. This happens by transforming into new shapes. (The “4D” refers to being able to change shape over time.) This element of change opens up all kinds of new manufacturing possibilities:

Imagine flat packed furniture that can assemble itself, or a water pipe that can repair itself if it breaks or bursts. Items that are too large for a 3D printer can be printed using a compressed design and then self assemble on its own.

Just as importantly, many 4D-printed objects are being designed to return to their shape once the stimuli are removed. Imagine a building that re-positions itself to brace for an earthquake, then shrinks back to normal afterward.

While 4D printing is still new, the materials it uses have been around for a while now. They’re found in everything from smart clothing to contact lenses. But, it’s the latest advances in 3D printing tech such as printing with multiple materials that have made their 4D applications possible.

Even though it’s still in the experimental stages, the 4D printing market is expected to be worth upwards of $537 million by 2025. A third of that money comes from the defense industry, with the automotive and healthcare sectors close behind.

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