What does it mean to print in fourth dimension ? When will it be possible on a large scale? What advantages will it bring compared to traditional and 3D printing?

The so-called additive manufacturing, which also includes 3D printing, has proven to be one of the most important and disruptive innovations of the modern age. 3D printing has revolutionized the way objects and components of all kinds are designed, developed and produced. This type of printing is now used in various sectors. Think for example of the aerospace, automotive, medical, up to food & beverage.

However, in recent years research has allowed the development of new methods to make current technologies even more sophisticated: one of them is the fourth dimension. Technically speaking, it is still an abstract concept and object of study for science. In the field of printing, 4D means the implementation of elements related to time and movement in addition to the standard measures of length, width and depth, typical of 3D.

What exactly does it mean? Without going too far into technicalities, it means that an object printed in 4D will transform over time, reassembling itself or completely changing its shape. Let’s try to clarify.

How 4D printing works

As with 3D printing, stereo lithography is also used in 4D to transform digital projects into physical objects. The main difference between the two processes lies in the use of special materials in 4D printing. Programming aims to make them react in a certain way following a specific external stimulus. For example, they are structured to react to specific stimuli, such as immersion in water, heat or electricity. Once exposed to these stimuli, the objects are modeled until they reach their final shape.

If the final product is a cube, but must be sent in a box, which for reasons of space must be flat, the use of 4D printing allows to satisfy both needs. Like? Create two two-dimensional squares programmed to interact and transform into a cube as soon as they receive a certain stimulus. The stimulus may be water or exposure to a heat source.

4d printing methods and materials

The press 4D is made possible by the use of specific materials, as we have seen. These are the so-called smart materials, such as hydrogel, SMP polymers (shape-memory polymers) or cellulose composites.

These materials are not new, being used down as common components for motor vehicles, sensors, actuators and energy sources.

Current and future applications of 4D printing

The 4D printing concept started circulating in 2013, when an MIT university assistant, Skylar Tibbits named him for the first time during a TED conference. Considered a pioneer of 4D printing, he said at the time: “disordered parts create an ordered structure only through local interaction”. The current fields of application, on an experimental level, are different. They range from the creation of intelligent fabrics to transformable architectures, up to electronic devices that assemble themselves.

In the future we think of further solutions, even more science fiction, such as facades of buildings that adapt to time, shoes that adapt to the activity of the feet, etc.

Final thoughts

Additive manufacturing, especially 3D printing , has left a tangible mark in the industrial sector, completely distorting operating methods and product development.

When smart materials become increasingly popular, then 4D printing will further revolutionize production. Although this technology is in its embryonic phase, the possible applications have already been thought of. As soon as it is available, its full potential will be immediately expressed.

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