Many people will not know this, but 3D printing has been around for 30 years. The technology is used with various every-day products, such as toys, household gadgets and technical tools. 3D printing technology is also used in the automotive industry, aviation and aerospace, the medical world and the building sector. Particularly in the medical world 3D printing technology has proved to be a quantum leap forward. This technology allows for instance burn victims to be treated better, because human skin can be printed for them.
4D printing technology goes one step beyond. By adding polymer fibres with shape memory to a composite material, you can use a 3D printer to print an object that can change its shape. This change can depend on temperature, light or humidity. Nature itself has done this for ages. Just look at tree leaves: they change their shape and colour in autumn.
4D printing will change our world. And the change is already there. The main innovation in 4D printing is the use of smart materials that can store pre-programmed information to change their shape or composition. Imagine that the tyres on your car had these characteristics. They would change according to the weather circumstances, optimizing road olding and handling in any situation. It would eradicate the need for a set of winter tyres.
Our clothing too would be adaptable. When the weather gets hot, your shirt would allow for more ventilation, more air to go through. If you suddenly find yourself in the rain, your dress may become water resistant. And the flat-packed IKEA furniture is assembled very easily when the parts can adapt to each other.
The army also benefits from this technology. Uniforms can change colours, adapting to whatever surroundings they are worn in. They can do the same camouflage tricks a chameleon does. 4D printed uniforms can also handle any weather conditions. They are always fine, in extreme heat as well as in extreme cold.
What about the building industry? We just print the building components, load them onto a trailer and deliver them to the building site. Next, the components get meshed and assembled, fitting each other like a glove. Finally, depending on the climate, the inside temperature is automatically adjusted and creates an ideal living space for you and your family.
4D printing offers many opportunities and challenges. The developments in the fields of nanotechnology, materials science, etc. offer possibilities in the short term to make materials smart. In other words, materials are becoming programmable. Of course, there is a danger in this as well. Hackers can sabotage things or abuse new technology. It is therefore important that legislation is put in place to anticipate abuse and that companies have highly qualified staff to manufacture only the best possible products.
More information on 4D printing technology can be found in this video: