4D Printing? What In the World Is That?

4D Printing? What In the World Is That?Every once in a while, a technology or process comes along that makes us say, “what in the world?

And a technology that’s doing that to us right now is 4D printing.

Experts have already called 3D printing extremely disruptive (in a good way). A recent report by analysts at McKinsey & Company called 3D printing an advance that will “transform life, business, and the global economy,” noting that it will have an economic impact between $230 billion and $550 billion a year by 2025.

But as the Wall Street Journal said in an article this July, “if you think 3D printing is disruptive, wait for 4D.” And that’s where we have to stop and wonder what in the world 4D printing is.

4D printing is like 3D printing, but with designs that continue to evolve after manufacture. What that means is that 4D printed objects provide the opportunity for change, like water pipes expanding or contracting to change flow rate, or materials that react when they come into contact with water.

It sounds crazy, sure. But then again, so did 3D printing when it was first hypothesized.

Other potential uses for 4D printing include furniture that assembles itself, or nano-robots that track down and selectively kill cancerous cells. 4D printing is all about the materials being printed–namely, programmable materials like DNA–but presents worlds of opportunities if it continues to successfully develop as a technology for the future.

It’s hard to say what the future holds for technologies like 4D printing, but 4D printing is at least starting to get some backing. The U.S. Army Research Office just recently backed 4D printing with a grant, and we expect others to join in, too.

And even though we don’t know what the future holds, this afternoon, you’ll definitely find us daydreaming about the possibilities of components and machines that assemble themselves. Really–how cool is that?

If you’d like to learn more about 4D printing, have a look at the video below. In it, Skylar Tibbits, “an artist and computational architect working on ‘smart’ components that can assemble themselves,” talks 4D printing and self-assembling technology. Take a look:

Photo credit: MIT Self-Assembly Lab via The Guardian