Edge of Innovation

4D printing vs. 3D printing: What’s the difference?


Most of you will have heard of 3D printing – the technology has been used to manufacture toys, spare parts, cars and even whole houses. But what about its next-gen upgrade? What is 4D printing?

4D printing is potentially as massive a paradigm shift as you’ll find anywhere. It has just as many applications as its 3D counterpart, but it’s exponentially smarter.

By adding the concept of ‘time’ to the 3D printing process, 4D printing techniques can create structures capable of acting (and reacting) in pre-programmed ways to different stimuli – flexing or perhaps changing size when a certain temperature is applied, for instance. In doing so, 4D printed objects, using new materials, have the potential to transform many aspects of our daily lives.

4D printed clothing

The phrase “smart clothing” usually refers to wearing a suit to a job interview or a jacket with a built-in phone charger. When it comes to 4D printing, however, it could be the start of something totally different.

One of the things that makes 3D printers less than ideal for printing clothing is the fact that they print hard plastic objects. Early attempts have been more wearable architecture than true clothing, often overcoming the inflexibility of 3D printed materials by reducing the size of the plastic panels and hand assembling them. The N12: 3D Printed Bikini from Continuum Fashion and the inBloom Dress by XYZ Workshop are two examples.

N12 3D Printed Bikini
The N12 3D Printed Bikini from Continuum Fashion features thousands of small plastic circles connected by thin springs.

A project called the Kinematics Dress by Nervous System, however, created a 4D printed gown that can cleverly transform from one shape to another, allowing it to comfortably conform to the wearer’s body and move like real fabric. It does this via tiny hinges, which are printed as part of the design.

In fact, these hinges are crucial. The dress itself is larger than the 3D printer that needs to print it. So the solution, says Jessica Rosenkrantz, Creative Director Nervous System, was to use a “physics simulation to fold up the dress into a small form that can fit inside the machine for fabrication.” The hinged design requires no assembly and almost magically folds out into a finished dress.

4D printed medicine

With an increasing number of fitness-tracking devices and software like Apple’s revolutionary ResearchKit, the whole of Silicon Valley is hooked on the idea of revolutionising and personalising medicine. 4D printing might be able to help.

One potential application is the possibility of printing new “skin” for skin grafts, capable of freely changing shape over time, not to mention medical implants. “We can now generate structures that will change shape and functionality without external intervention,” Dan Raviv, a mathematician at MIT, told LiveScience. “We want to print parts that can survive a lifetime inside the body if necessary.”

4D printed smart cities

Not many of us get excited about water pipes. But imagine a 4D-printed water pipe that could adapt to ground changes by expanding or contracting – or even mimicking the way the human intestine works by pulsating to drive water through itself. 4D printing could lead to the development of smart objects that can react to changing environmental conditions.

As MIT’s Self Assembly Lab points out, 4D printing can imbue objects with “robotics-like behavior without the reliance on complex electro-mechanical devices.”

Other possible uses for 4D printing might even include entire buildings, capable of arriving in flat-pack form, only to assemble themselves when heat, gravity, water or any other one of a number of possible stimuli are added. And how about a road that can heal its own potholes? Scientists and engineers are only just beginning to think about the possibilities. – Luke Dormehl

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