Exploring the Fourth Dimension: What is 4D-Printing.

The industry is facing the next big challenge. 3D and 4D printing, also called additive manufacturing, are some of the most disruptive innovations affecting the modern industrial outfit. The additive process (3D Printing) is going to upset and revolutionize manufacturing design, development, and production. 

3D vs 4D Printing 

3D printing technology is already in use in a wide range of industrial sectors like aerospaceautomotive, medical, food, and beverage. The ongoing research is helping the technology improving fast and getting more and more sophisticated to touch the point next – the 4D-Printing. The fourth dimension is a mysterious, even mystical theory famous with physicists, engineers, mathematicians, and philosophers. In additive manufacturing, it means to include the time and motion in addition to the standard measurements of length, width, and depth.

Are you confused? Yes, I was too when researching to write on the topic. What I can understand is a plain fact that the object once 4D-printed will self transformable over time. In other words, the item is prone to self-assemble and reshape itself entirely. Sound a little familiar? Yes, you right, the machines in Sci-Fic Movies fighting each other, demolishing, damaging, regenerating, and converting into other forms fighting again furiously with renewed anger. Which direction will remain available to humans to escape if such machines are roaming in the real world? 

The Way 4D Printing Works

The concept is the same behind 3D printing & 4D printing. Both use a layer-by-layer stereolithographic process to convert them into an actual physical objects. 4D printing uses specific programmable materials capable of behaving in a directed manner. These materials react to specific stimulation like water submersion, heat, or electricity. The object responds to a known stimulator by folding itself into its final shape. The shape-changing is a reaction to the stimuli, for which the materials, are specifically programmed. 

4D Printing Methodology

Special materials can only be used for 4D printing. The programmable designing of the dynamic object is possible by using “smart” materials alone. Such materials are designed to react to external stimuli. Typically, these materials are hydrogels, shape-memory polymers (SMPs), or cellulose composites.

The concept of smart materials is not new to the industry. The items like motors, power sources, actuators, and sensors utilize some types of piezoelectric material. These materials produce an electric current in response to various types of mechanical stress.

Possible 4D Printing Applications 

The idea of 4D printing was first presented by computer scientist and MIT assistant professor Skylar Tibbits in 2013 while addressing a TED conference. Tibbits, as a pioneer of 4D printing, floated the idea of self-assembly, meaning that “disordered parts build an ordered structure through only local interaction.”

 Tibbits and his team advanced the idea into lab experimentation. They are working on self-assembly and programmable materials in an MIT-based research lab. They are using 4D printing concepts and other self-formulation techniques to develop cutting-edge products such as smart textiles, transformable architecture, and even self-assembling mobile phones.

The concept is still in the hatching. Tibbits team and others believing in the idea are hoping for success. They firmly believe that time is not far away when many products will be a reality responding to programmed human needs and instructions. 

Will it become a reality? 

Additive manufacturing, especially 3D printing, has already paved the way for industrial engineering. It is going to change the whole methodology of design, development, and production. The heavy machinery and costly industrial peripheral is going to become obsolete at an unexpectedly fast pace. 

The smart materials becoming increasingly available, 4D printing may eventually become the next standard and mantra for manufacturing. The professionals, programmers, and industrialists have started subscribing to the idea and are keenly watching the progress. 

Image by ZMorph3D from Pixabay 

Umar Hayat
  • Umar Hayat
  • The author has rich management exposure in banking, textile, and teaching in business administration.