How 4D Printing Will Shift the Shape of Manufacturing

In a brief period, 3D printing — the process of creating a three-dimensional object by adding successive layers of raw material until it is complete — has gone mainstream. Each day more commercial applications are emerging to print everything, from household products to customized medical devices and prosthetics and nearly all the components of a house.

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. While there’s little doubt that 3D printing will be a game changer for many industries, certain limitations will determine how it can be used and the products that can be made with it.

Enter 4D printing. 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 technology could further redefine how we design, manufacture, and interact with all kinds of objects.

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.

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 addition, researchers have demonstrated how dynamic materials used in 4D printing can enable an object to “remember” its shape. That capability could be used to flat-pack a self-assembling shelter that springs into place after a natural disaster or to develop bridges and temporary roads made from materials that expand to heal damage and cracks.

The Present and Future of 4D

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.

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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, AI, and robotics, the potential disruption could be even more profound. As futurist Matt Griffin recently 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 likely to remain below US$100 million through 2025, but demand from the defense and aerospace, automotive, and healthcare sectors will fuel its development, according to Grandview Research. In fact, there are some interesting use cases already:

  • NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has developed a flexible metal fabric—“space chain mail”—which could be used for large antennas, to shield a spacecraft from meteorites, in astronaut spacesuits, or for capturing objects on the surface of another planet. The U.S. space agency says the ability to program new functions into the smart material offers seemingly endless applications.
  • Doctors at the University of Michigan’s CS Mott Children’s Hospital developed a 4D-printed airway splint for infants suffering from tracheobronchomalacia, a condition that causes their windpipes to collapse. The splints, which hold the trachea open, can automatically expand to up to double their size until the children are strong enough to support themselves, typically around age three.
  • Product designer Christophe Guberan has collaborated with MIT to develop a self-assembling shoe that could transform a complex and labor-intensive production process.
  • Airbus is also working with MIT to develop an air inlet component made of programmable carbon fiber that would adjust itself automatically to control the airflow used to cool an aircraft engine. Such a component would remove the need for heavy mechanical control systems and reduce fuel consumption. The aircraft manufacturer is predicting that 4D printed components could form the basis of a lighter and faster fuselage.

It may be five to 10 years before 4D printing is in wide enterprise use. There are numerous challenges, among them the many ways materials of all types are known to fail. But the nature of exponential change is that it occurs more rapidly than anyone predicts. Those who want to be at the forefront of digital transformation should be considering the potential implications and use cases of 4D printing for their organizations sooner rather than later.

Dan Wellers is the Digital Futures global lead and senior analyst at SAP Insights. Michael Rander is the global research director for Future of Work at SAP.

This story originally appeared on the Digitalist.