4D Printing To Create Magical Structures

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4D Printing

Now that 3D printing has been around quite for a while, new technologies surrounding this disruptive technology are being developed. 4D printing or programmable matter is one such innovation which harnesses 3D printing to realise virtual information in the material world. Besides the three space dimensions, the fourth dimension referred in this term is time. 4D printing is the ability of an object to change the shape or form as a function of external influences. Flat and low-volume structures can be reprogrammed into desired forms after production depending on the requirement. New researches and innovations have proved that 3D printing has been instrumental in synthesizing such smart structures.

Currently the objects we see around us are quite fixed in their forms. But we have the possibility of changing their shapes and forms when we want them to, according to external factors like location, temperature, climate etc. A wrist watch is always a wrist watch. But imagine if it can assume a form of table clock at home and wrist watch on your hand! With novel technologies and adequate materials, such a form-changing structure can be developed to respond to influencing conditions. Self-assembly, disassembly, recycling: the possibilities are endless.

The savior: 3D Printing

Manufacturing such a structure with variable time-based properties is quite complicated with conventional manufacturing techniques. Even though adjustable elastomers and form changing mechanisms are known to mankind since centuries, the right technique to combine these two spheres was unknown until few decades. 3D printing has rightly addressed this challenge through its exclusive property of freedom of geometry. Multi-material 3D printing technology is used to build a structure with materials of different viscous, elastic, conducting, magnetic and optical properties. The component is built in one particular shape and is reoriented after printing based on external influences.

4D Printing
Flat printed structure used in load-bearing form (Image: ETH Zurich)

Load bearing 4D structure

Researchers at ETH Zurich have demonstrated one of the most recent explorations of synthesizing 4D structures using 3D printing. They designed reversible, deployable structures that have load bearing capacity, and multiple, predictable activated geometries. The speciality is that these structures were fabricated flat. Using multi-material 3D inkjet printing, they developed a unit actuator based on Von Mises Truss, and expanded into a full mechanism by hierarchical principles. The resultant structure possessed multiple equilibrium states and though initially flat, they were activated to 3D structures.

4D Printing
Transformation from single strand to MIT (Image: MIT)

4D Printing applications

The applications for such form-changing structures are manifold. Space and aerospace are significant consumers as space constraint is a prime concern. Flat structures are transported to space and then realised into final shape. Medical applications are also being developed, such as systems for valve opening and closing. The Self-Assembly Lab in MIT developed a strangle strand that self-folds to the letters “MIT” when exposed to water, and a flat surface that folds into a cube. Aeroplane wings are also being discussed in this field. Wings that can change shape during flight to reduce air resistance are under research. 3D printed clothes, shoes and accessories are also being investigated to be able to adapt to user’s conditions. With more and more innovations in 3D printing, we can expect such “magical” objects to be on our shelves soon!


Image courtesy: ETH Zurich, MIT, Self Assembly Lab

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  1. mperkins37 says

    So many awesome , interesting developments

  2. mperkins37 says

    Could easily see medical uses to this theory

  3. Karen Propes says

    What a fabulous invention, I think it’s going to change the whole industry in one way or another. Looking forward to seeing what it can be used for in the medical industry.

  4. mperkins37 says

    By far one of the most promising inventions ever made (3D Printing)

  5. David says

    Programmable matter is fascinating, straight out of sci-fi novels. Definitely the way forwards

  6. Terry says

    Fascinating concept. Love to see where this is headed 🙂

  7. WirelessGuy says

    I find this a bit less impressive than some of the others out there. It’s a solution looking for a problem.

    Sure, in unique scenarios self assembly could serve a purpose but at the end of the day the lifehack of adding a big chain to your wall clock and hanging it in you neck seems like it would still be more cost efficient.

  8. Jared Heifetz says

    Love seeing the good and bad sides to printing. Gets our gears turning to find solutions and improve! 🙂

  9. David Klein says

    The versatility of 3D printing is awesome! I think the possibilities only increase as we learn to print through a greater variety of mediums as well, especially with regards to the possible applications of this “4D” printing technique.

  10. mperkins37 says

    So many wonderful directions & applications of this tech

  11. Jared Heifetz says

    I’ve also seen 4D cookie cutters. Might have to try that out…

  12. Richard Bynum says

    This was kind of neat. Using a material that can move based on temp could be used for sealing doorways and windows in the winter and letting air through during the warm months. All without the use of electricity. There are many ways to use the new materials that move on their own. It might take a decade or two for something big to come of it but I think it’s interesting. It would be fun to play around with it on a 3D printer to see what we could come up with!

  13. Darren says

    Impressive what 4D Printing is able to accomplish for sure.

  14. Justin Flugum says

    That video with the Eiffel tower was awesome.

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