Physical and biological materials which change their properties and can compute outside of silicone matter, multi-material printing which enables shifting from one shape to another without wires or motors, the creation of self-assembly systems from disordered parts and the building of an ordered structure through local interaction only comprise just a short list of the superpowers we can attribute to 4D printing.
History of 3D printing
We have all heard of 3D printing by now, or even participated in the glorious process of producing any custom shape upon request. Like many other current technologies, 4D printing, too, made its way from industry to the general public thanks to massive reductions in cost and the increased publicity of crowdfunding campaigns at the beginning of the decade. This technology is nothing new, though. In fact, its history can be traced back to the 1980s in Japan, where it was known as Rapid Prototyping (RP) and used for industrial-scale, cost-effective product development. Later, in 1987, the very first commercial RP system was introduced. Since then 3D printing technology has evolved by leaps and now works with various feeding materials.
The inner workings of 3D
So how do all these cool 3D objects come alive? Layer by layer, the robust printer creates the required shape and at the end of the process the desired product emerges, built from the raw material fed into the machine, be it plastics, ceramics, biodegradable filaments, paper, or even edible matter. Indeed, 3D printing has found an application in the food industry too. Still, this isn’t the most revolutionary showcase of the futuristic technology. How about producing custom 3D-printed human parts and organs to use in transplants? It may sound too sci-fi, but it is already possible.
There is a number of reasons for the growing popularity of this technology. First and foremost, the speed of creating new prototypes of virtually any physical product can be drastically reduced from days to hours. The final product can be of almost any shape or size, hardly viable by other means. The cost effectiveness of technologies like Metal Laser Sintering or DMLS, allows manufacturers to print metal by melting metal dust with a high-power laser. No molds are needed and the unused material can be saved for future production.
4D printing - the future of smart materials
What if we could use physical and biological materials to modify shapes, properties or even compute outside of silicone matter? Smart materials are now being developed thanks to the concept of 4D printing or multi-material printing, which allows shifting from one shape to another on its own without relying on wires or motors, much like Mystique in X-men or shape shifters in True Blood.
Perhaps the biggest strength of 4D printing, though, is the ability to create self-assembly systems from disordered parts and build an ordered structure through local interaction only. This will enable the building of new structures in extreme and hostile environments, like space or deep water, using only passive energy such as heat, shaking, pneumatics, gravity or magnetics - no robot or human intervention required.
An example of an area of life where 4D printing can be applied is the public water supply system in the industrialised world: it is built to meet our current water needs, tucked underground and covered by tons of concrete or asphalt. What happens in cases when the current capacity isn’t sufficient or there is leakage is that the pipes need to be dug out and replaced, which is costly, labour- and time-consuming. In the future we will be able to create a self-healing material which can auto-adjust in size, adapting to the needed capacity of the tube at any time, or manually pumping the water on its own. How about those pesky potholes in the roads? We’ll take no more of those, thanks to self-repairing roads.
Scaling down from human to nano-size is where 4D printing starts to get really promising, though. Scientists are already working on the first models of 3D shapes, including nano-robots or drug delivery systems, which will use DNA to self-assemble those functional structures. This is only the beginning of the endless applications for this impressive technology which will take many sectors and operations to the next level.
None of what we described so far would be possible without one crucial piece of the puzzle though - the software. The tools needed to run 4D processes can decode the assembly sequences, predict the programmability of parts, calculate the energy for actuation, simulate error correction, and visualise disassembled or assembled products. This is one of the sectors, where visualisation in VR, simulation and analysis of big data are key.
Just add water
Just like 3D printing is now ubiquitous, 4D printing will soon become commercially viable and available. It is not too hard to imagine us picking up our smartphones, selecting a 3D model in a mobile app, previewing it with a VR headset and sending it to a printer, which will produce at a first sight a seemingly strangely shaped sheet of material. We can then grab the sheet, submerge it into water or heat it up with a hair dryer for a couple of minutes and voila! A new kitchen shape, lamp or a child’s toy has been made on the go. The possibilities are truly limitless.
Copywriter: Ina Danova