4D printing: the next step

While designers and architects are gradually getting used to 3D printing, the next generation is already here. A team from the US and Singapore has developed 4D printing, to create 3D structures that change over time.

The researchers, from University of Colorado Boulder and Singapore University of Technology and Design use shape memory polymer fibres combined with the composites that are already used in 3D printing.

The shape changing can either be pre-programmed using the SMP fibres, or altered at a chosen time using external influence. This could, for example, be heat or electricity applied to the material. The team is now working on integrating different types of movement, such as folding, stretching or curling, into the materials.

Though many people don’t realise it, 3D printing has been around for about quarter of a century. The challenge has always been to make the process cheap and fast enough to make it viable for commercial and industrial use. The relatively recent development of active (i.e. moving or shape-changing) fibres means that the doors are open to new applications.

By contrast, 4D printing was introduced as a concept earlier this year. Skylar Tibbits, from MIT, proposed 4D printing in a TED talk. Getting your head around 4D printing is a little more complicated, but the applications are even wilder than already known for 3D printing.

Imagine biomedical tools and implants that squeeze down for insertion during operations, and regain their full size and shape when safely in the body,  perhaps to repair an artery. Or a solar panel that automatically adjusts to make optimum use of the sun’s rays. In theory, 4D printing could even allow for automated manufacture of 3D printers. This ‘rise of the machines’ is going to make for very interesting watching.


More information on 4D printing is here.

Images via CU-Boulder.