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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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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