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The Fourth Dimension

A Futuristic Look at the Next Generation of Printing

A chair that builds itself. A toy that reacts to temperature. A shoe that forms to the foot. Welcome to the new world of 4D printing. The newest technology offers many of the same constructs as 3D, but with a fresh combination of smart materials and conduits that will change how we think about additive manufacturing.

Today, the term 4D printing may solicit more questions than exclamations, but it essentially refers to 3D-printed objects that have an added dimension—time. These 3D items can actually transform and change shape based upon exposure to certain stimuli, like temperature or water. And while the additive manufacturing technology we may be most familiar with has actually been in existence for more than 30 years, only more recently have researchers developed methods that take the technology into the ever more nebulous-sounding 4D realm. By using smart materials that, when exposed to heat, water or pressure, can eventually transform or self-assemble—4D printing offers an interesting method of creating and manufacturing materials that is expected to wow consumers.

The 4D Shape Shift

In the U.S. Skylar Tibbits, a scientist who leads MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, has long been considered the inventor of the 4D process. By combining digital manufacturing techniques, he’s studied how materials react in unique situations in recent years.

“The idea behind 4D printing is that you take multi-material 3D printing,” Tibbits explained during a TED Talk, “and you can add a new capability, which is transformation, that right off the bed, the parts can transform from one shape to another shape directly on their own. And this is like robotics without wires or motors. So you completely print this part, and it can transform into something else.”

Tibbits is working closely with printer maker Stratasys to pioneer the technology, developing notable 4D-printed items, like the first-ever shoe (see sidebar). He’s also looking into how 4D printing could enhance additive manufacturing as we know it, and for industries as far ranging as the military and the arts.

Much of what we already know about 4D printing was pioneered by researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Sciences at the University of Wollongong in Australia. These folks have been among the first to experiment with 4D printing techniques by developing materials that can change under the influence of certain stimuli. Aside from the scientific “it” factor, the technology is already offering a great deal of promise, not only within the tech world, but also for the medical, military, automotive and robotics industries.

“The cool thing about it is it’s a working, functioning device that you just pick up from the printer,” explains Professor Marc in het Panhuis, who led the research team in its earliest work. “There’s no assembly required.”

He and his students have been working on 3D-printed materials that are specifically activated by water. “It’s an autonomous valve,” he says.

“There’s no input necessary other than water. It closes itself when it detects hot water.” In laymen’s terms, these folks have found a way to create a 3D-printed item with built-in smart technology that allows said item to shape shift using something as simple as water. Beyond that (prepare to have your mind blown) it knows when the shape shifting is complete based on a set of determinants pre-programmed into its very being.

Down the road, the technology could inspire a slew of both practical and inspiring developments—everything from self-assembling furniture to custom-fitted fashion.

The U.S. Army has also granted one million dollars to three universities to further research 4D printing with the aim of developing self-assembling weapons and tools, as well as color-shifting camouflage to protect troops on the field. And Airbus SAS France is developing technology that will ideally cool jet engines using smart material that reacts to temperatures on its wings.

Money Follows Innovation

The belief among those on the ground floor of this emerging technology is that the next generation of printing could change the way we manufacture everything from jets to IKEA furniture. According to a new market research report, 4D Printing Market, published by MarketsandMarkets, the value for 4D printing is expected to reach more than $530 million by 2025.

In addition to the profit predictions, both 3D and 4D printing also cut back on waste. Because it is additive rather than subtractive, creations are built from scratch rather than carved out of materials. But if the 3D printing marketplace offers any sign about what we might expect from this next-level technology, the truth is that the industry has never been as flush as it is today with established leaders like Stratysys, and Aleph Objects, and startups Matter Hackers and Robo 3D, all vying to make the leap into the consumer world in a big way. (All of these companies are also exhibiting at CES 2016.)

In fact, as 3D printing has become more sophisticated by helping to build prototypes for medical, aerospace, engineering and automotive giants, and as the digital technology is pinpointed for especially creative endeavors ranging from art to fashion, the price points have been making 3D printing more affordable for the average person. But like most emerging technologies (remember when not everyone owned a photo printer or digital music player?), its usefulness in the industrial world doesn’t necessarily guarantee its “cool factor” among consumers…at least not yet. You may find maker workshops at the local Barnes & Noble and demos at Home Depot, but it’s still just the beginning of 3D printing for the average Joe.

But when it comes to big business, leaders are lining up to get in the 4D door early. For example, Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG in Germany recently introduced its newest printer with 4D capabilities—the Jetmaster Dimension 250. The company got into the 4D segment about a year ago to develop cost-effective technology based on inkjet and robotics. To drive home the potential for suppliers, the company worked with a food startup to personalize holiday packaging.

“4D printing based on inkjet technology paves the way for high-quality, cost-efficient customized surface finishing of mass-produced consumer goods, even in small quantities,” says Jason Oliver, head of digital at Heidelberg. He says the company is planning a new solution that opens up opportunities for industrial users “in particular such as those in the automotive industry.”

U.S. tech giant Hewlett Packard also recently opened an R&D center in Spain that’s focused on driving innovation of both 3D and 4D printing. The Leon Centre for Competence employs about 50 skilled employees with the hope of creating a total of 100 jobs in the next year. The Spanish government has helped fund the center to develop 3D and 4D printing technology. And HP hired Steve Nigro, its former senior vice president of printing and imaging, to lead its new printing group. The company, which is working with Shapeways and Autodesk, is expected to launch its first in-house 3D printer, the Multi Jet Fusion Technology—later this year.

Facing Obstacles

Given its potential, why isn’t 4D printing already on the lips of every tech CEO? There are still a lot of obstacles the technology needs to overcome for it to become as widespread as its proponents hope. Practically speaking, the process of having an object mend into a new shape causes a lot of strain. This means that while the cool chair that just assembled itself may be interesting to look at, it may not be able to hold up to normal wear and tear.

Experts also agree that materials used in the 4D-printing process can take a significant amount of time to respond to a variety of stimuli. There’s a question of how to control the stimuli outside of a lab. What happens when the temperature drops or it rains? Does your object fail?

It also turns out that much-touted shape changing has been a slow process. It’s one of the things researchers are working on to lay the groundwork for the technology to become more widespread. Up until now the time lag has meant that even the most sophisticated demonstrations of 4D printing may not be suited to all applications. There’s also a question of whether an item can shift back to its original shape like, for example, when it comes to moving. Will the 4D-printed table that self-assembled be able to shift back into a flat package? Somewhere along the line the cost will need to catch up to the innovation, which will need to appeal to big business and, ultimately, real people.

“These are complex things built with complex parts that come together in complex ways,” explains MIT’s Tibbits, who during his TED Talk invited leaders of all industries to come together to build on this worthy idea, saying that 4D printing will (not might) reimagine the world, “from the nanoscale to the human scale,” he said, “so that we can go from a world like this (3D) to a world like this (4D).”

Natalie Hope McDonald
Natalie Hope McDonald is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia who covers the consumer technology industry, as well as topics ranging from business and design to health, news, sustainability and arts and culture.