Technology moves by leaps and bounds. While the world was still getting accustomed to the idea of smartphones, Apple launched iPhone, which changed the way we look at mobile phones. Now, something similar is happening in the space of 3D projects and 3D printing. While most companies are now getting accustomed to the idea of 3D, researchers have found a way to create 4D materials, which can shift shapes once exposed to a different environment. A new research published in the journal Science Advances shows that researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology, Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) and Xi’an Jiaotong University in China have created elements that respond differently to different environments. The team by printing layers of memory polymers was able to design a material, where each layer behaved differently when interacting with heat.
The research follows from that of Harvard University, which last year announced printing of a plant that could change shape once exposed to water. Although 3D printing moved beyond simple shapes long time ago—many companies have now been using it to design complex structures, for instance Nike and Adidas both are creating 3D-printed shoes—the 4D application is expected to reduce costs further and save more time. More so, as the new technique, researchers from GeorgiaTech, SIYD and Xi’an Jiaotong, believe can achieve printing time and material savings up to 90%. More important, it is expected to upend the market for smart wearables. With many companies already exploring the idea of smart clothing, 4D printing can help create materials which can adapt to changing environments. Water and heat may be the only elements for now, but 4D materials can certainly be created to respond to moisture, sunlight, and other external stimuli.
Not only smart clothing, bio-medical devices are also expected to change with these materials, as scientists will be able to do tissue engineering—a process by which scientists use cells, materials and biochemical and physicochemical factors to improve or replace biological tissues. These can be made to produce drug-eluding devices, which can activate if they come into contact with a specific body or when certain conditions change. For instance, these can produce stents or be used for reconstructive surgeries, as they would be more adaptable than what we use today.
With research on nanotechnology in full-speed they can also be used to design much smarter and smaller materials. Researchers from Dartmouth were able to create a polymer cube, which could lift its own weight, by using nanoscale molecules.
There is also the scope for creating safer cars and much more adaptable consumer electronics, which would be able to change shape in different environments or by passing of electric currents.
But like any technology, where there is a scope for improvement there is a high cost attached to it. Although given the many functionalities of 4D materials these may be cost-effective, the products being used to produce them would become more expensive. With only a limited number of complex 3D printers—these exist with universities—the costs may remain high for coming few years, till someone discovers a cheaper way to commercialise 3D printing with 4D techniques.