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What Is 4D Printing?

Updated on November 4, 2014

How 3D Printing Works

3D Printing

You may have heard about 3D printing. 3D printing is the manufacturing process where a 3-dimensional object of any shape is produced by following a digital model. 3-D printing is achieved by laying down multiple layers of a material until the desired shape is achieved. This is just the opposite of traditional machining which subtracts from a piece of raw material until the desired shape is achieved. Since the early 1980s 3-D printing has been utilized in prototyping and production manufacturing.

4D Printing

4D printing is the Show off big brother of 3D printing. The fourth dimension is time. It uses additive manufacturing to assemble a new object from a digital model just like in 3D manufacturing. It then goes a step further by programming materials to change shape at a certain time. Materials can be programmed to change shape or color when exposed to temperature, agitation or chemical changes.

How Does It Really Work?

Sheets of programmable material are used to print out a flat object. when exposed to physical or chemical changes the object self constructs into the desired shape. These sheets of material may contain protein or polymer sequences that are designed to change shape a certain way at a certain time. This gives the manufacturer control of when the product really takes shape. For example a product could be transported around in your backpack in a flat form and be programmed to take shape only when exposed to water. Products could be mass produced at the factory and easily transported and stored in a flat form and then only take shape when needed. This could save millions of dollars in transportation and storage costs.

What Are The Practical Applications Of 4D Printing?

The Practical applications of this new technology are vast. Products could be manufactured on military bases, space stations or other environments where transporting supplies is difficult. If products can be produced on demand there would be no need to keep large inventories of specialized parts. It could virtually eliminate shipping costs. This could save millions of dollars in products and storage facilities. Just imagine being able to print out a replacement part for a computer or a truck with just the digital instructions from a computer halfway around the world.

Cutting Edge Research at MIT and Harvard University

Research is being done at MIT and Harvard University regarding self assembly and 4D printing. Skylar Tibbits is the Director at MIT's cutting edge self assembly laboratory which is pushing the outer limits of this exiting new technology. This link will take you directly to the MIT self assembly lab website so that you can see first hand what they are working on.

Johns Hopkins University Using 4D Printing

Johns Hopkins University is using 4D technology in their laboratories. They are using lithographically patterned 3D micro/nanostructures in medicinal delivery systems. There is a great potential for 4D technology in medicine. Medications could be administered into the body and programmed to take shape in a certain chemical or physical environment. This could help reduce undesired side effects by only activating the delivery of the medication when needed. This would help improve the comfort of the patient during chemotherapy and save money by reducing damage to other surrounding body parts. The possibilities are endless and we are just on the cutting edge of this manufacturing revolution!

Will 4-D Printing Change Our World?

Do you think that 4-D printing will revolutionize manufacturing as we know it?

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This is an incredible link that will take you directly to the MIT Self assembly lab web site it is amazing!

This is a link to a 4D printing Inc. which does 4D manufacturing

This is an interesting article on the use of 4D technology in the military

This company manufactures sheets of 4D printing material

About the author

This article was originally written and published 11/12/13 by Karen Shiley.

My name is Karen Shiley. I live in the beautiful evergreen Washington state. I have an adventurous spirit and love to share what I learn with everyone. I like science, gardening, cooking, reading, daytrips and above all else my amazing family who supply me with endless amusment and happiness.

© 2013 Karen Shiley


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