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4D Printing: A technology coming from the future


3D Printing technology has existed for almost 30 years now. Yet, while the Additive Manufacturing industry is still discovering new applications, new materials, and new 3D printers, another technology is arising

It is called 4D Printing and is coming straight from the future! How do we add the fourth dimension to 3D printing Even if we have previously introduced you to how materials change shape with this technology, in this blog post we will go together through 4D Printing technology itself, and investigate its potential and its future applications.

What is 4D Printing?

4D printing is the process through which a 3D printed object transforms itself into another structure over the influence of external energy input as temperature, light or other environmental stimuli.

This technology is part of the project of MIT Self-assembly Lab. The purpose of this project is to combine technology and design to invent self-assembly and programmable material technologies aiming at reimagining construction, manufacturing, product assembly, and performance.

In the video above, we see a flat-printed structure that, once placed in hot water, slowly folds itself into another structure. The video below is a test from MIT Selfassembly laboratory demonstrating the functionality of shape transformation:  4D Printing: Self-Folding Surface Cube from MIT Self-Assembly Lab

4D Printing: Self-Folding Surface Cube from MIT Self-Assembly Lab

What is the difference between 3D Printing and 4D Printing?

Obviously, 4D Printing has one more “D” than 3D Printing. What does that mean and why does it bring so much added value to the technology? 3D Printing is about repeating a 2D structure, layer by layer in a print path, from the bottom to the top, layer by layer until a 3D volume is created. 4D Printing is referred to as 3D printing transforming over time. Thus, a fourth dimension is added: time. So, the big breakthrough about 4D Printing over 3D Printing technology is its ability to change shape over time.

A 4D-printed gripper grabs an object when the temperature is optimal

A 4D-printed gripper grabs an object when the temperature is optimal

A 4D printed object is printed just like any 3D printed shape. The difference is that the 4D Printing technology uses programmable and advanced materials that perform a different functionality by adding hot water, light or heat. That’s why a non-living object can change its 3D shape and behavior over time. 

How does 4D printing work?

4D printing technology uses commercial 3D printers, such as Polyjet 3D printers. The input is a “smart material”, that can be either a hydrogel or a shape memory polymer. Thanks to their thermomechanical properties and other material properties,  smart materials are given the attributes of shape change and are differentiated from the common 3D printing materials.

On the other hand, objects printed with 3D Printing technology, are characterized by rigidity. That means that the 3D printed objects are going to keep their 3D shape once printed.

Diagram by Jean-Claude André | Scientific Advisor at INSIS

Diagram adapted from [F. Momeni et al. / Materials and Design 122 (2017) 42–79], re-drawn by Jean-Claude André | Scientific Advisor at INSIS

Advantages of 4D Printing

Size changing

The most obvious advantage of 4D printing is that through computational folding, objects larger than printers can be printed as only one part. Since the 4D printed objects can change shape, can shrink and unfold, objects that are too large to fit a printer can be compressed for 3D printing into their secondary form.

Volume reduction by 87% with two folds | Photo by n-e-r-v-o-u-s.com

Volume reduction by 87% with two folds | Photo by n-e-r-v-o-u-s.com

New materials= new properties

Another advantage of 4D Printing technology is the usage of possible applied materials. 4D printing has a vast potential to revolutionize the world of materials as we know it today. Imagine 4D printing being applied to a variety of smart materials that today we cannot even imagine! 

Until now, we have seen experiments of Multimaterial Shape Memory Polymers. Materials like the ones featured in the video below, “remember” their shape, actively transforming configurations over time in response to environmental stimuli. This shapememory polymer will resemble tailorable shapes is very important for the health industry. For instance, we could make devices that will change shape are release medicine when the patient gets fewer. 

Potential Applications of 4D Printing

The videos above demonstrate in a very simple way the 4D Printing process. Though, even if these examples are not characterized by great complexity, we can foresee great potential in this technology.

Self-repair piping system

One potential application of 4D Printing in the real world would be pipes of a plumbing system that dynamically change their diameter in response to the flow rate and water demand. Pipes that could possibly heal themselves automatically if they crack or break, due to their ability to change in response to the environment’s change.

Self-assembly furniture

Since 3D printing furniture is limited by the size of the printer, 4D printing could allow to just print a flat board that will curl up into a chair by just adding water or light to it. Imagine it as a more complex version of the video below. Programmable Wood from Self-Assembly Lab, MIT.

XL 4D printing in extreme conditions

4D Printing: Surface to Sine Wave from Self-Assembly Lab, MIT. 4D Printing would be even more useful in big scale projects. For example, in extreme environments, such as space, it can have very promising applications. In space, currently, the 3D printing process of the building causes some issues related to cost, efficiency, and energy consumption. So, instead of using 3D printed materials, 4D printed materials could be used to take advantage of their transformable shape. They could provide the solution to build bridges, shelters or any kind of installations, as they would build up themselves or repair themselves in case of weather damage.

Medical industry

On the other hand, imagine 4D printing being applied to a very small scale, in sectors such as the medicinal one4D printed proteins could be a great application, as the self-reconfiguring protein example illustrated in the following video. Another special material researchers are working on is selffolding protein. 4D Printing: Self-Folding Protein from Self-Assembly Lab, MIT. Another application of 4D printing in the medical field could be designing sents. Programmed stents would ravel through the human body, and when they reach their destination, they would open up.


4D printing could also change the face of fashion. Self-Assembly Printing Lab from MIT is studying potential applications of 4D technologies. One of the ideas is that clothing could change accordingly to the weather or the activity. For instance, shoes could change their shape when you start running to provide you with better comfort and amortization.

Current 4D printing research

MIT’s Self-assembly lab

MIT is a pioneer in many 3D printing innovations, and certainly, they don’t stop there. Assistant professor Skylar Tibbits found Self’Assembly Printing Lab. Since 2014 Tibbits has been working with Autodesk on studying 3D printed structures and their post-printing behavior. One of their projects is the adjustable clothing mentioned above.

Harvard’s Wyss Institute for biologically inspired engineering

A group of researchers was created at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for biologically inspired engineering is developing special material called hydrogel. The material is inspired by flowers that change their shape depending on the environment. It is composed of cellulose fibrils from wood. Their purpose is to resemble microstructures of flowers which gives flowers the ability to change shape. Scientific reports prove how revolutionary 4D printing is. 
The hydrogel then can imitate flowers’ ability to modify their structure depending on temperature, humidity, etc. 3D printing allows scientists to manufacture complex designs with the hydrogel.

University of Wollongong

A team of scientists at the University of Wollongong in Australia developed the first-ever 4D printed water valve. It is a huge achievement as the valve closes itself when hot water is poured on it and widens when the temperature goes down. This phenomenon is possible thanks to 3D printed hydrogel ink which reacts rapidly to high temperatures.

Singapore University of Technology and Design

Researchers from Singapore University of Technology and Design took on another issue with 4D printing: its commercialization. The problem lays in the materials which production is complicated. This team decided to use a commercially available multi-material 3D printer and combine 5 steps of material preparation in just one!
They presented this development by 4D printing a flat star that bends and transforms into flower-like objects when put in hot water.

Can you start 4D printing?

All these potential applications seem very inspiring and promising for the future indeed! All the research conducted so far around 3D printed material properties has a lot to offer to the additive manufacturing industry and certainly contributes to its growth.

Even if we are at the very beginning of the technology of 4D Printing, we can’t wait to see how it will influence the future of Additive Manufacturing, just like 3D printing revolutionized traditional manufacturing.

4D printing still requires more research and development and it’s not available for everyone. 3D printing, however, is right in your computer! With an online 3D printing service you can get your 3D models produced at the finest quality in no time. Learn more about our materials and choose the best one for your project!

In case you have any 3D printing related questions, feel free to contact us, our 3D printing experts are here to help you out.

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