How 4D Printing Will Shift the Shape of Manufacturing

In a brief period, 3D printing has gone mainstream. Each day more commercial applications are emerging to print everything, from household products to customized medical devices and prosthetics and even entire houses.

Recent significant advances in 3D-printing technology include the ability to employ a number of different materials—not only plastic but also metal, resins, sandstone, wax, and ceramics—making it possible to incorporate multiple materials into a single printed object. These improvements are paving the way for significant business benefits, including streamlined supply chains, improved prototyping, and the manufacture of new designs that were not possible in the past. There’s little doubt that 3D printing will be a game changer for many industries, even though it has limitations that will determine how it can be used and the products that can be made with it.

As 3D printing takes hold, an emerging technology—4D printing—is poised to further transform how we design, manufacture, and interact with all kinds of objects. The programmable materials used in 4D printing would enable companies to incorporate the fourth dimension—time—in manufacturing. Companies will be able to print objects that can self-assemble, reshape, or otherwise react to changing events or conditions.

The dawn of dynamic materials

Building on the existing foundation of 3D printing, 4D printing uses materials that stimulate the printed objects to change their shape, function, color, or other properties when needed. These specially engineered materials have properties that enable them to perform differently when they encounter water, light, heat, or electrical current, for example, and could enable the redesign of a host of objects in use today. Warehouses and logistics companies could soon be using self-flattening boxes. Plumbing system pipes could become capable of changing their diameter in response to flow rate or water demand. Medical implants made of dynamic biomaterials are already saving lives.

Want a quick overview?

Read “4D Printing: Self-Assemble, Self-Shape, Self-Repair.”

Indeed, 4D printing could disrupt many industries. Because of the self-assembling capability, objects too big to be printed in their entirety through conventional 3D printers can be compressed for printing and then expand after manufacturing. Furniture made by 4D printing has potential to eliminate the more mundane but maddening problem of furniture assembly.

In redefining how and what we can produce with 3D printers, 4D printing allows manufacturers to develop a new understanding of what a product can do and how it can be used. Although 4D printing is still in the research and development stage, it’s clear that companies will be able to produce not just a static product but one that can change and grow throughout its lifecycle.

An orchid is 4D-printed with an advanced, cellulose-hydrogel ink and then submerged in water to activate its transformation. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

When combined with other advancing digital capabilities, including the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and robotics, the potential disruption could be even more profound. As futurist Matt Griffin has blogged, for example, there’s no reason why robots “can’t, or won’t, be able to design themselves, print themselves, and assemble themselves.”

The global 4D printing market is projected to reach US$419.5 million through 2026, with demand from the defense and aerospace, automotive, textile, and healthcare sectors fueling its development, according to Polaris Research. Some interesting use cases include the following:

It may be five to 10 years before 4D printing becomes widely used commercially. There are numerous challenges, among them the many ways materials of all types are known to fail. But exponential change by its nature occurs more rapidly than anyone predicts. Companies that want to be at the forefront of digital transformation should consider the potential implications and use cases of 4D printing for their organizations sooner rather than later.