3D printing technology is not a new concept in today’s technologically driven world. This technology has offered a great advancement in many fields of life. Medicine, industrial buildings, education, and the automotive sectors are some areas where 3D printing technology promises a revolution. 4D printing technology is the advanced version of 3D printing technology, where the fourth dimension is time.
4D printing is the process through which a 3D printed object changes its physical properties and transforms into another structure over the influence of external stimuli such as a change in temperature, light, or other environmental factors.
This new technology is part of the project of the MIT Self-assembly Lab. The project aims to join both technology and design to invent self-assembly and programmable material technologies to reimagine construction, manufacturing, product assembly, and performance.
4D printing is based on the principle of molecular self-assembly. Here, molecules change and form complex structures without any human intervention. This concept is widely used in nanotechnology. The 3D printing technology produces objects with a fixed shape; 4d printing will change their shape and their color, size, the way they move, and in many more ways. 4D printing uses “intelligent” materials, which have been programmed to change their property, such as shape under the influence of an external factor, most often temperature, just like when a computer obeys to code. This “code” is added to the material, and it helps to provide instructions to the 3D printed part. Bastien E. Rapp, President of the Process Technology Laboratory NeptunLab, explains: “4D printing is the functional form of 3D printing. Instead of printing only physical structures, we can now print functions. It’s like embedding a piece of code in a material – once triggered, it does what you programmed it to do.”
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4D printing technology is similar to 3D printing technology with the addition of one dimension that is time. 4D printing enables objects to be pre-programmed in different ways to react to a range of different external stimuli. 4D printing technology is a futuristic dream which has excellent potential in the present. The technology promises to deliver any design which has a transformable shape and can be made from an extensive selection material. These unique materials will have varying properties and a range of potential uses and applications. This self-assembling object-producing technology can transform the entire supply chain and can be used in a wide range of industrial processes.
4D printing technology can make dynamic structures with many adjustable shapes, properties, or functionality. This capability mainly depends upon the appropriate combination of smart materials three-dimensional space. Mathematical modelling is necessary for the 4D printing design, which uses multiple materials to formulate a structure. There are two stable states in 4D printed systems, and these structures can shift from one state to another under the corresponding stimulus.
4D printing to save lives
The healthcare industry is set to take great advantage of 4D printing since 4D printed products will be responsive to individual body needs once ejected in the body. This technological advancement can be further used for tissue engineering, self-assembling human-scale biomaterials, design of nanoparticles, and nanorobots for chemotherapy. A Frost & Sullivan report finding states that 4D printing technology is still in its introductory stage and is not yet ready for widespread use. Yet, the growing potential for 4D technology in the medical field is significant.
4D in the Construction and Building Sector
Defense advanced research projects agency’s (DARPA) Engineered Living Materials (ELM) program are looking at 4D technology to develop “living biomaterials” that combine the structural properties of traditional building materials with the ability to proliferate, self-repair, and adapt to the environment.
The DARPA ELM website states: “ELM specifically aims to develop design tools and methods that enable the engineering of structural features into cellular systems that function as living materials, thereby opening up new design space for building technology. The program aims to validate these new methods by producing living materials that can reproduce, self-organize, and self-heal.”
Researchers are now working to develop numerous futuristic concepts for construction and building, including chimneys that can self-repair, roofs capable of manipulating and controlling airflow, and driveways that can absorb oil stains.
The 3D printing technology has the potential to transform and disrupt entire industries, including consumer products, healthcare, automotive, construction, and aerospace. 4D printing technology will accelerate right along with it. There is a vast possibility for materials to change their properties by adapt to their environments, assembling themselves, and are basically “smart” enough to adjust to the world around them.
These potential applications of 4D printing seem very inspiring and promising for the future ahead. All the research conducted infield of 3D printed material properties has a lot to offer to the additive manufacturing industry and certainly contributes to its growth. Although the 4D printer technology is in the beginning stage, the potential of technology to influence the future of Additive Manufacturing is abundant, similar to 3D printing, which revolutionized traditional manufacturing.
4D printing still requires intensive research and development, and still, the technology is not affordable for businesses to switch over. Many companies are still testing the 4D printing process, and few have reported their results. Researcher Bastien E. Rapp concluded that 4D printing involves high technical knowledge, making it more challenging to democratize it as much as 3D printing, which uses an additive manufacturing process.
What’s Next for 4D
While 4D printing is still in the research and development (R&D) stage, it’s already being widely used for prototyping for industrial, medical, and aviation industries. In the medical field, doctors are incorporating 4D printing into the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). For instance, the doctors at the University of Michigan’s CS Mott Children’s Hospital have developed a 4D-printed airway splint that prevents infant windpipes from collapsing by automatically expanding as the child grows until the child is strong enough to support him or herself.
3D Printing: Still be the Future
The days when 3D printing was simply dreamed about are far behind us. Today, the process of creating a three-dimensional object via successive layers of materials is a mainstream activity—from customized medical devices and prosthetics to conventional household products, and even industrial buildings.
Over the last few years, 3D printing technology has seen significant advances in the way it employs and combines different materials such as plastic, metal, sandstone and wax. These advances have paved the way for business benefits, streamlined supply chain processes, increasing personalization, and the ability to manufacture new designs.
In fact, in the next decade, patients waiting anxiously on the organ donor list could be a thing of the past. By 2030, it will be possible to biologically 3D print organs on demand. 3D printing has become a game changer for many industries. However, the reality is that much of the innovation has been incremental. Limitations still exist—but not for much longer.