4D printing consists of biomimetic composites that adapt and reprogram their properties, functionality or shape on demand based upon external stimuli. Researchers are combining different types of plastics and fibers to create smart materials that self-assemble or change shape when they come into contact with stimuli such as heat or water or are confronted with a change in its environment. Skylar Tibbits, the director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology Self-Assembly Lab and researchers from the firms Stratasys and Autodesk Inc. have developed a process that turns a code into such smart objects. 4D printing technology is expected to allow users to print objects by taking smart materials from a 3-D printer that reshape themselves or self-assemble over time take. It is called 4D because it adds time (fourth dimension), to the printing process. Specific geometrical training needs to be imparted to such a printer in order to bring precision to the process of transformation of an object into various shapes formed at specific angles. A geometric code based on the object's own angles and dimensions is fed to the printer along with measurements that dictate its behavior when confronted with external stimuli. This code sets the direction, the number of times and the angles at which a material can bend and curl. Increased demand for technological innovation in the fields of military, manufacturing, construction, fashion and aerospace among others is expected to bolster the research work in order to practically realize the concept of 4D printing. Complex coding techniques, high cost of developing smart materials are some of the restraints for the research and development work.
Potential application areas include military & defense, automotive, manufacturing, medicine, construction, infrastructure, clothing, aerospace and numerous other fields. In military and defense, concepts such as alteration of camouflage of a soldier’s uniform, protection against shrapnel upon contact and protection against poisonous gas upon exposure are proposed and can be put into practical use with technological advancement. Additionally, guns could transform into other weapons, aerial drones could transform into land-roaming machines, and submarines could hide based on the water they travel through. In the automotive field, the concept of developing an automobile coating that changes its structure with environmental changes in order to protect it from corrosion can be made possible with the advent of 4D printing. In the field of manufacturing, the concept of self-assembling machines and processes where a pile of parts can be taken without human intervention in order to transform them into various products can be realized. In the field of medicine, DNA nanorobots that track down and selectively kill cancerous cells can be developed using this technology. In the construction field, self-assembling materials can be converted into fully completed structures in extreme environments or disaster areas where conventional construction is too expensive or not feasible. In the infrastructure field, 4D printing can be used to develop bridges or roads made from self-expanding materials to heal damage and cracks. In the field of clothing and fashion, 4D printing can develop clothes that transform by themselves as per the shape and size of the person wearing them. In the field of aerospace, airplanes could be made to change themselves based on what they carry and where they fly.
This technology is expected to make its debut in the U.S. owing to heavy investment and research work carried out in this region. Furthermore, the U.S. Army Research Office has granted USD 855,000 collectively between three research teams working on the research and development of 4D printing.
Research in 4D printing has commenced through collaboration between Stratasys’ Education, R&D departments, Autodesk Inc. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) Self-Assembly Lab. Stratasys is a U.S. based manufacturer of 3D printers and 3D production systems. Autodesk Inc. is U.S. based software provider for architecture, construction, engineering, media & entertainment and manufacturing industries.
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