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4D Printing: A Revolution Across Industries

The market for self-assembling parts is already expected to exceed $64 million.

The days when 3D printing was simply dreamed about are far behind us. Today, the process of creating a three-dimensional object via successive layers of materials is a mainstream activity—from customized medical devices and prosthetics to conventional household products, and even industrial buildings. It’s projected that by 2030, nearly a quarter of Dubai’s buildings will be 3D-printed.

The global 4D-printing market is expected to reach US$64.5 million by 2019 and increase at a 33.2% CAGR through 2025.

Over the last few years, 3D printing technology has seen significant advances in the way it employs and combines different materials such as plastic, metal, sandstone and wax. These advances have paved the way for business benefits, streamlined supply chain processes, increasing personalization, and the ability to manufacture new designs.

In fact, in the next decade, patients waiting anxiously on the organ donor list could be a thing of the past. By 2030, it will be possible to biologically 3D print organs on demand. 3D printing has become a game changer for many industries. However, the reality is that much of the innovation has been incremental. Limitations still exist—but not for much longer.

The market for various programmable materials, which are the foundation of 4D printing, are expected to grow at a CAGR of 20% or more through 2025.

A Warm Welcome to 4D Printing

Think 3D printing, but with increasingly complex materials that will open doors for new product innovation possibilities. This emerging technology will allow the production of three-dimensional objects incorporating a fourth dimension: time. This exponential innovation has the ability to redefine how we design, manufacture, and interact with objects by using “smart” materials to create objects that can self-assemble, reshape themselves, or otherwise react to changing conditions.

Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

While the thought of producing self-assembling and self-reacting objects may sound whimsical to those who are just now getting a grip on 3D printing, the reality is that 4D printing is estimated to become a $64.5 million market this year, and it will be increasing at an impressive CAGR of 33.2% through 2025.

By utilizing dynamic materials in 3D printers, 4D printing will create objects that are programmed to change shape, function, color, or other properties when they encounter water, light, heat, electrical current, or other changing conditions.

Let’s take a look at how this emerging technology will expand the possibilities of what’s achievable.

MIT’s Self-Assembly Laboratory first developed the technique in partnership with Stratasys and Autodesk, but researchers around the globe are developing new use cases.

What’s Next for 4D

While 4D printing is still in the research and development stage, it’s already being widely used for prototyping for industrial, medical, and aviation industries.

Christophe Guberan, a well-known industrial product designer, has collaborated with the Self-Assembly Lab to incorporate 4D printing into his designs. Currently, he’s working on the development of a self-assembling shoe that could transform a production process that presently involves significant labor and thousands of components.

In the medical field, doctors are incorporating 4D printing into the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Doctors at the University of Michigan’s CS Mott Children’s Hospital have developed a 4D-printed airway splint that prevents infant windpipes from collapsing by automatically expanding as the child grows until the child is strong enough to support him or herself.

Current demand is strongest in the defense, aerospace, automotive, and healthcare industries.

In the aviation field, Airbus is developing programmable carbon fiber into a fuel-saving air inlet component that will cool the engine by adjusting automatically to control airflow. This ability to control airflow also has the potential to transform the cabin experience by mediating pressure and making the space more breathable for passengers. These self-reacting mechanisms will eliminate the need for less-reliable, heavy mechanical control systems, further reducing fuel consumption.

4D printing could fundamentally alter what it means to design and manufacture objects. When combined with other advancing digital capabilities—including IoT, artificial intelligence, and robotics—the potential disruption sparked by 4D printing could be even more profound. Futurist Matt Griffin argues that there’s no reason why future robots won’t be able to design, print, assemble, and even 4D print themselves.

Though 4D printing is in the beginning stages, the technology is advancing exponentially. Companies should consider its potential implications soon: A 4D future awaits.

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