Despite the technology being around for nearly 30 years, many of us are still trying to get to grips with 3D printing and understand the capabilities and limits that comes with it. However, due to the continuous advancements of automation and machinery, the 4D printing phenomenon has begun to emerge.
The emergence has caught the eye of some of the world’s biggest companies, with some already incorporating and utilizing its technology making it a significant part of the global market. According to a report gathered by AllTheResearch, the 4D Printing Market size was valued at US$65.1m in 2020 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 42.1% for the forecast period ending 2027 reaching a market value of US$489.2 M. But how is 4D printing influencing the future?
What is 4D Printing?
4D printing is quite closely related to 3D printing and is essentially the next stage of printing. The 4D process is the way in which a 3D printed object re-models itself into another physical structure. This re-modelling, the fourth dimension, transpires due to the influence of an external source which can include heat, light, humidity and pressure among other factors.
The aim of it is to merge technologies and formulate self-assembly and programmable material technologies in pursuit of the target of reimagining construction, manufacturing, product assembly, and performance. In effect, 4D printing enables a 3D structure to remake itself through a fully programmable robotic operation.
Difference between 3D Printing and 4D Printing
3D printing can be understood as the repeated process of 2D printing, from top to bottom, layer by layer., to create a 3-dimensional object. But 4D printing can be understood as the gradual remolding of a 3D printed object. This means that we can label the fourth dimension added as ‘time’.
A 4D printed object is printed in exactly the same manner as a 3D printed shape but what 4D technology does is to use progressive and programmable materials that provide the abilities to perform various duties by accompanying different environmental parameters. A geometric code is included which is based on the shape’s dimensions and will provide the shape with a ‘memory’ by giving orders to its components on how to change once confronted with certain external sources. These are the reasons why objects can change over time.
One of the most evident positives that 4D printing has brought is the ability to create objects larger than printers can create as a single component through computational folding. Due to the fact that objects printed through a 4D printer can remould and change shape, shapes that are too big to fit a printer can be compacted for 3D printing in their other form.
4D printing has a large potential to impact the world of materials as they are known today. Various experiments have taken place including experiments of Multimaterial Shape Memory Polymers. These experiments have seen the transformation of materials and their configurations over time, responding to the external factors. This shapememory polymer will have the capability of adjustable shapes, which could be crucial for many applications, such as the health industry.
Within the manufacturing sector, 4D printing has a positive impact as it improves manufacturing efficiency and also reduce manufacturing costs and carbon footprint.
How 4D Printing has influenced Different Industries
3D printing has enabled the healthcare sector to undertake a number of tasks such as the creation of bones, ears, exoskeletons, windpipes, jawbones, eyeglasses, cell cultures, stem cells, blood vessels, vascular networks, tissues, and organs, as well as novel dosage forms and drug delivery devices. But the use of 4D printing means that tasks such as customizing and personalizing medical products, drugs and equipment are also possible.
For example, custom 4D-printed implants, fixtures and surgical tools can decrease the amount of time needed for surgery and patient recovery, in addition to increasing the chances of a successful surgery or implant. This can be demonstrated in a case from 2015, which saw the University of Michigan save the lives of three babies who suffered from respiratory issues by inserting 4D printed implants. The device fitted was specifically designed to adapt its size to the child’s growth and to dissolve itself when it is no longer a necessity. This life-saving impact of 4D printing is a key reason to understand why an increasing number of healthcare organizations have adopted the use of this technology.
One of the biggest names known to delve into 4D technology is NASA. NASA has begun utilizing 4D printing technology and created intelligent metallic space fabric. It has been used for astronaut suits, but also has the potential to protect spacecraft and important space machinery against possible meteorites or any other possible damage. The fabric is made up of squares that reflect light on one side and absorb it on the other, which makes it ideal for passive heat control.
4D printing components can have a positive impact on the manufacturing sector and the level of development and growth of the area. Some examples including liquid solidification, material extrusion, material jetting, and powder solidification, methods applicable to a wide range of industrial applications.
Furthermore, 4D printing permits the manufacturing of clothing and footwear that has the ability to adjust to the body’s shape and movement. Adidas has a range of 4D footwear with the technology allowing “the ability to fine-tune midsoles to specific patterns of movement, so that athletes can enjoy precision performance with every step”.
The outlook for 4D printing is looking exceedingly positive. The technology is set to revolutionize printing and manufacturing in the years to come with more and more industries exploring what they could do to tap in this technology.
Multinational company Iberdrola’s forecast for 4D printing in 2022 states that 4D printing will grow by $162 million – an increase of 39% – at a global level and states that we will see 4D printing have uses in construction, defence, textiles, automotive, aerospace and health.
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