Remember when it took eons for 2G mobile technology to give way to 3G? Then it took much less time for 3G to become 4G, which is now the standard. Already, mobile companies are buzzing about the promise of 5G. 3D printing technology might follow mobile technology in this manner, taking ages to progress and then seeing a phenomenal boom in a short period of time.
Just as the reality of 3D printing is becoming accepted and widely used, a group of researchers at the University of Colorado-Boulder have developed 4D printing. It uses the same printers and basic techniques as 3D printing, but the materials are combined in interesting ways to do unique things. The research was funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the National Science Foundation.
What is 4D Printing?
In 4d printing, "shape memory" polymer fibers are incorporated into composite materials, creating a 3D object. But when the object is heated or cooled, key "printed active composites" are activated, allowing the object to transform into another object entirely. The shape memory fibers behave in a predetermined way when exposed to the stimulus (like heat or cold), and therefore the designer can predict how and when the object will transform from one shape to another. Yes, wacky science, but it works.
How Does 4D Printing Work?
When the shape memory polymers are embedded into the composite materials, the object can be 3D printed into one shape, then heated or cooled to produce another shape. For example, a flat piece of laminate can be printed, and then heated or cooled into a bent, coiled, twisted, or folded shape. It is possible that with further research and experimentation, the same technique can be applied to other materials used in 3D printing, such as metals.
What are the Possible Applications for 4D Printing?
What's the big deal? Well, 4D printing could revolutionize engineering, manufacturing, packaging, and the biomedical industry. One application would be the ability to produce something flat and easy to ship that then transforms into something useful at a job site. For example, solar panels could be 3D printed in a flat, compact form, shipped into space via a satellite, and then transformed into its eventual shape by the cold temperatures of space.
4D printing could revolutionize the field of engineering, allowing designers and manufacturers to produce a multitude of items for a variety of applications that have never before been conceived. 4D printing could be especially useful in applications that call for compact shipping of larger objects, such as items used by the military, rescue workers working in harsh conditions, as well as in space travel, shipping, and medical sciences.
Unlike 3D printing, 4D printing isn't yet ready for mass acceptance. However, the science is there and with further research and development could soon yield huge gains for a variety of industries and applications.
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