Is 4D Printing the Future of Design?

What is the 4th dimension?

According to current understanding of physics and mathematics, space and time can be considered on a single continuum, with time representing the 4th dimension (with location in space covered utilising three dimensions).

In this sense, we considered an object not only through its physical location, but is position in time as well.

So how does this relate to 3D printing?

The fusion of 3D printing with transforming materials can create what is colloquially known as 4D printing, where a 3D structure can alter is shape and orientation over time. This change can be brought about by numerous things, such exposure to water or light, and can be customised to allow a degree of programmability.

The concept proposes a dramatic change to conventional understanding of structures, from static and rigid objects, to dynamic structures which can be adapted based on performance needs. 

What does this mean for the future of Rapid Prototyping? For the future of manufacturing?

The core idea behind the concept of 4D printing is adaptability. Imagine creating products (clothes, furniture) which respond to the demands of the user and their environment. If it’s cold, find a way to maintain and store heat. If it’s hot, increase ventilation. Imagine building a new table. Gone are the need for screw-drivers and Allen keys. Just add water and watch your new table/chair/cabinet assemble itself. 

The idea of building functionality into the material (everything from actuation to sensors, and even material logic) is ambitious, and poses to shift the paradigm behind product design, usage and delivery. It poses change to the retail sector and aim to change the way we use products. 

However, 4D printing is currently exists in a theoretical space. Initial experiments are promising, however, much work is needed before the concept finds commercial use. However, it remains a key area of watch, as it has the potential to dramatically change our approach to product design and product function.