4D Printing – an Introduction and Overview

Additive manufacturing (3D printing) is itself an emerging technology and is infact over thirty years already! As SPI Lasers has continuously reported the technology is now becoming more mainstream, but is still very heavily underutilised considering its potential.

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The potential to economically and time efficiently 3D print ANYTHING is an irresistible proposition. 3D printed materials is not the end of the story though, there are techniques to create materials/objects which can be pre-programmed to operate in a certain way. In this article we explore the even newer concept of 4D printing.

A definition of 4D printing

The term 4D printing was first coined by TED professor Skylar Tibbits in his February, 2013 speech at the MIT Conference.

A definition of 4D printing could be:

The use of a 3D printer in the creation of objects which change/alter their shape when they are removed from the 3D printer. The objective is that objects made self-assemble when being exposed to air, heat or water, this is caused by a chemical reaction due to the materials utilised in the manufacturing process.

So what’s the difference between 4D and 3D printing?

Think of 4D printing as the same as 3D printing with the addition of time. By adding time to 3D printing the concept of 4D printing is born. This enables objects to be pre-programmed in various ways to react to a range of different stimuli.

4D printing is futuristic but has a very exciting future. 4D printing delivers the possibility of designing ANY transformable shape, which can be made from a large selection of materials. These different materials will have many different properties and a range of potential applications and uses. There is a real opportunity for the creation of dynamic self-assembling objects which could transform and be used in a wide range of industries and in a large number of applications.

Example of a 4D printed flower created by Harvard University researchers

Example of a 4D printed flower created by Harvard University researchers

Potential applications for 4D printing

Applications of 4D printing are particularly suited to changes in environmental circumstances:

  • Architecture – Buildings which are delivered in a flat pack form but entirely self-assemble when the right stimuli are added
  • Clothing – Clothes and footwear which alter their change and function (e.g. clothes which naturally adapt/change to the size/contours of the wearer).
    • An example are shoes which become waterproof during rain or react to other external atmospheric conditions
    • Military clothing, e.g. clothes which camouflage, cool, and/or insulate soldiers by reacting to different input environments
  • Food – The 4D printing of food using a number of techniques
  • Health – Multiple applications including nanotechnology uses:
    • There is the possibility of inserting implants into the human body, which self-deform to a plan when inserted with surgical intervention (e.g. cardiac tubes)
    • Using 3D printers injected with stem cells to print slices of liver and other organs
    • Using 3D printers to print skin, the shape of which changes overtime depending on conditions
  • Home appliances – Products in the home, such as a chair which upon purchase self-assembles through heat stimuli applied by a home hairdryer
  • Transport – Roads which self-heal potholes

Contacting SPI Lasers

We know that 3D printing is an evolving technology, never mind 4D printing; we’ll continue to create articles on this topic to keep you updated! We think it’s never too early to discuss new technologies though and welcome discussions on related topics. Visit our contact us page and call us today to discuss how we can help make your plans for the future a reality.


Image Credits: Katherine Barker and YouTube


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