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Keith Haas

4D Printing 101: What Is It and What Is Its Potential?

Engineering and healthcare will benefit, but plenty of other sectors will too

Dec 29, 2022 11:22:28 AM


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If you’ve kept track of what we’ve been discussing on The Key Point Blog, you know that 3D printing is an area of interest for us here. But what’s the next step after 3D printing? How about we jump into the next dimension, the Fourth Dimension—or, time. Don’t click off this blog yet, I’m being serious! Time accounts for changes from one point to another and, in this case, how an object changes shape from the time it’s created to when it is triggered to alter itself. This is basically what 4D printing is: a jumping off point from 3D printing currently being researched by various institutions that can potentially offer us many benefits in the future.


When it comes to the actual 4D printing process, we’re stepping into familiar territory. Without going into great detail: 3D and 4D printed objects are printed through the same programs, using processes like fused-deposition modeling, powder bed printing, and stereolithography.


The real difference here—or, as I’ll call it, “the game changer”—are the special materials used that enable objects to change shape over time. While regular 3D printed objects use materials like plastics and metals, 4D printed objects incorporate a hydrogel or shape memory polymer that physically react to stimuli like water, heat, or light. These objects are essentially preprogrammed to change shape due to the nature of the materials. How they change shape is all a matter of clever design, and it opens the door for how engineers can structure these objects to change shape and be used to help society.



There are countless potential real-world applications 4D printing can bring about, in a wide span of industries that are being considered. Many of the applications sound bizarre, but it should be noted many of these ideas are coming right out of institutions like MIT! For instance, did a pipe break in your home? If so, pipes in the future may be designed to change shape, repairing itself in response to the changing flow rate of the water.


Research is also being done to see how 4D printed objects can be used in the medical industry, which can be groundbreaking. Examples of medical research include looking at how these objects can be used to carry and administer drugs in the human body by clinging onto a targeted part of the body based on the temperature, as well as designing vascular stents that move through the body and expand narrow blood vessels to promote a healthy blood flow.


Concepts for 4D printing don’t just revolve around repairing objects and people, as it can impact how products and structures are developed in the future. Shoes that change shape when you walk or run to provide optimal comfort? Bridges and shelters that shape up in construction projects? Objects coded to fold into boxes? Furniture that self-assembles when water or light interacts with it? These are all ideas focused around 4D printing being researched and considered by various institutions to make our lives more convenient—and count me in for the latter two ideas, they would really simplify the moving process!


Keypoint Intelligence Opinion

What we went over here is simply scratching the surface of what 4D printed objects are and what they are capable of doing. 4D printing technology is still in its early stages, so it’s still too soon to say if (and when) these innovations will come to fruition while it’s still being researched. However, as 3D printing continues to get less expensive, we can expect more research towards understanding how various industries can best utilize 4D printed objects to solve problems.


For now, who knows what developments we’ll see applied in our day to day lives in the coming years. Only time—you know, the Fourth Dimension—will tell!


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