4D Printing

Imagine having a box that was printed with a 3D printer. That in itself is already cool, but imagine if that box could automatically flatten itself for packing once it was impacted by some stimuli. It almost sounds silly when we just consider the impact of a box going from 3D to 2D (by flattening itself), but the impact that simple things like these can have in the business world is massive.

For example, let us assume that a trucking company (we’ll call them Tucker Trucking for fun) has a warehouse where they store all of their shipping boxes. Whenever this trucking company receives a shipment of goods, they remove the goods from the boxes for delivery to their individual sites, and then they fold the boxes to ship them back out to their departure point so that they can be re-used for other shipments.

Now, imagine that this same company does 5,000 trucks in a day. So, they have to hire 200 people to constantly break down the boxes for shipment back out. At $10/hour, assuming a 7-hour working day, Tucker Trucking is paying $14,000/day to these basic labor employees.

So, by having boxes that flatten themselves upon stimulus, such a company could save approximately $5 million every single year! And this is just one example of how useful 4D printing could be!

The working

We’ve heard of 3D printing, also known as “Additive Manufacturing”; this turns digital blueprints to physical objects by building them layer by layer. 4D printing is based on this technology, but with one big difference: It uses special materials and sophisticated designs that are “programmed” to prompt your 3D print to change its shape. In effect, 4D printing is a renovation of 3D printing wherein special materials to print objects can transform their shape post-production.

In 4D printing, you need a stimuli or trigger to start the transformation. These include water, heat, wind, light, electrical currents, and other forms of energy. There are other forms of triggers, some of which have to be researched in depth.

For some of the 4D printing processes, you need special materials that are able to react to these triggers. This is how the objects are “programmed” and execute their 3D printed “genetic code” whenever you trigger it.

Other research labs focus on “programming” the object’s desired shape into the micro-structure of standard materials. This approach makes use of the capabilities discovered in microscopic structures. When these are correctly configured, they evince the desired deformation of the macro-structure. The advantage is primarily that 4D printed objects can harness the use of existing 3D printers and materials.

Into the 4D future

4D printing is in the adolescent stages of becoming a science. However, there are a few concentrated groups of scientists across the globe who believe that the practicality of 4D printing may become a reality and one of the fast growing technologies in the near or medium-term future.

There are a variety of examples that truly show how far this technology has come. Think of simplistic folding objects to programmable shape shifting materials and hydro-gel composites. Years of research and testing will eventually lead to amazing inventions, such as adaptive medical implants, self-assembling buildings, and even 4D printed soft robots.

The myriad of uses that can come from 4D printing technology are very enticing. So make sure to keep your eye on this new and engaging industry in the coming years as new developments facilitate the betterment of our lives in this wonderful world of tomorrow.

– Mathew


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