Understanding 4D Printing, Its Significance and Differences from 3D Printing

4D Printing Image Credit: eidonlab.org
4D Printing
Image Credit: eidonlab.org

4D printing is an emerging future technology that prints object just like 3D printing but differs in material and functions.

The capabilities of 3D Printing, also known as additive manufacturing, are not concealed from anyone as it is currently being used across different manufacturing settings. It functions automatically, without requiring any additional personnel assistance to run, monitor, and maintain the machine, which is making it much more accessible than other manufacturing systems. Now, with the advancements in technology, scientists and researchers are exploring the capabilities of the fourth dimensional printing system (4D printing).

Undeniably, 4D printing will deliver much more capabilities than 3D printing. Like the previous one, the 4D printing system is also based on Stereolithography (SLA), which is used to create 3D-printed objects. In this printing process, a smart 3D object is created from smart materials that can alter their shape over time, if exposed to water, heat, light, current, or magnetic field. In 4D printing, the structure of printed objects is preprogrammed in detail as per the desired change of shape.

Significance of 4D Printing

As this new level of printing technology is based on Stereolithography, it combines 3D printing, smart materials, and customized design for the required transformation. It is the next step in additive manufacturing or 3D printing. One of the most apparent advantages of 4D printing is that its computational folding wherein objects larger than printers can be printed as only one part. As 4D printed objects are able to change shape, get smaller and unfold, objects that are too large to fit a printer can be condensed for 3D printing into their secondary form. Using 4D printing can considerably revolutionize the world of materials.

This emerging technology holds promising applications in the field of medical, home appliances, implants, sensors, soft robots, and more. 

In the medical field, this technology is aimed at delivering numerous benefits to medical practitioners that are not covered by 3D printing. Applications of 4D printing in medical assist in creating a 3D physical object through adding smart material layer by layer with the help of computer-operated computer-aided design (CAD) data. Last year, engineers at Rutgers University-New Brunswick developed flexible, lightweight materials with 4D printing that could lead to better shock absorption, morphing airplane or drone wings, soft robotics and tiny implantable biomedical devices.

Currently, a large number of industry leaders and research facilities are developing new generation of printing system for medical research, self-assembly processes, 4D-printed objects, and more. According to a research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Singapore University of Technology and Design, solar energy may be one of the top two fields to benefit most from 4D printing. The researchers have combined their efforts to create a type of structure that returns to its original shape after being bent, twisted, stretched, or getting out of shape.

Comprehensively, 4D printing technology is a smart structure that comprises rigid materials connected with expandable elements that can alter their shape when exposed to certain stimuli such as heat, light, water, etc.