3D printing, of course, has opened up a vast amount of opportunity by putting the ability to manufacture the objects we need into our own hands. Toys, utensils, appliances, parts and tools. We can even print tools that help make other tools. (Who will be the first to 3D print a 3D printer?)
But when 3D printing includes a 4th dimension – the ability of a 3D printed object to transform itself in a programed way after the application of a stimulus – the creative and manufacturing opportunities increase exponentially.
The concept of materials adapting to their environment is as old as time itself. Does your hair get frizzy when it gets humid? Do you ever hear the wood frame of your house creak when the temperature outside drops below zero? Those changes are expected, but uncontrollable. 4D printing is based on the ability to anticipate and control those kinds of changes.
Manufactured objects or materials that change in an anticipated way after being subjected to stimuli (time, water, heat, pressure, etc.) are already part of our lives. At the simplest level, think of memory foam mattresses, or self-darkening (photochromic) sunglasses. There are also far more advanced materials that react to electrical polymers or specific chemical stimuli. Objects created with these materials, called “smart materials”, are not surprisingly referred to as “smart objects”.
Potential (and actual) Applications of Smart Objects
The most practical application of 4D printing, at least to most of us, comes when it is applied to the items that we use every day. For instance, products that don’t just change, but adapt, to suit our changing needs, such as clothing or footwear that optimize their form and function by reacting to changes in the environment we inhabit.
Objects could be printed in order to function in ways that humans cannot. Shelters, machines, or tools could be printed flat, or exponentially small, and sent to disaster areas or other hostile environments like space or the ocean floor. Once there, environmental conditions harmful to humans might actually trigger the object’s change in shape and properties.
Within the last few years, the United States Army Research Office has offered sizable awards to researchers who are developing new 4D printing applications. Ideally, the Army is searching for 4D technology can be applied to the gear or clothing troops might use in specific situations. For instance, a smart garment that can alter its color or hardness according to need would offer many potential benefits. Altering a garment’s camouflaging capability, or its ability to cool the wearer, or even how it offers structural protection, would be achieved not by changing into new gear, but by changing the gear they already have.
Perhaps the arena where 4D printing stands to have its biggest impact on our lives is healthcare. Currently, researchers are printing biocompatible, self-adaptive components that can be implanted in the human body and manipulated in a prescribed manner. Ultimately, these components may be manufactured with the ability change shape and function without any kind of external intervention.
4D printing is about creating products that don’t just satisfy a need, but can adapt to changing situations based on our anticipated needs. It will be in everybody’s future.