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Are You Ready for 4D Printing?

It took three decades for 3D printing to become a disruptive force in the supply chain and it’s still relatively immature, but 4D printing is starting to emerge as a further extension of additive manufacturing.

According to Grandview Research, the global 4D printing market is estimated to reach US$64.5 million by 2019 and grow at a CAGR exceeding 33.2 percent from 2020 to 2025. The research firm attributes the growth to rising demand in the military and defense, aerospace, automotive, and healthcare industries. North America is expected to emerge as a dominant region for 4D printing market by 2025 due to high investments in research and development.

4D printing isn’t so much the eventual replacement of 3D printing technology as it is a superset, according to Grandview Research analyst Priyanka Bansal. It’s a technique that adds up time as the fourth dimension to a 3D printed object. 4D printed objects are programmed to change physical dimensions upon application of external stimuli, and the processes for manufacturing the final product are similar to 3D printing. The only difference comes in with the ability to change the shape, whereas 3D printed objects are not self-healing.

As an extension of the 3D printing, Bansal said 4D printing offers improved quality, efficiency, and performance capabilities. While 3D printing can turn digital blueprints into physical objects layer by layer, 4D printing is similar technology with the major difference being the special digital designs or materials it uses allows the 3D printed object to change its shape.

Grandview Research senior analyst Madhumita Chaudhary said 3D printing has only begun to fulfill its potential in the last several years, while 4D printing is particularly centered around advanced materials with self-healing properties.

Self-healing components for electronic devices

Although it will take some time for 4D printing to be available commercially, said Chaudhary, early forms of 4D printing are anticipated to comprise flexible objects designed in such a way that they can transform themselves when immersed in water or subjected to pressure, gravity or air. These flexible objects can transform themselves into simple shapes such as a 3D cube, a complex art form or even into an apparel from mere cloth structure.

4D printing involves advance materials that can be altered by heat, light and water, such as programmable carbon fiber, which is anticipated to witness a healthy growth by 2025 due to its high stiffness, low weight, and tensile strength, according to Grandview Research.

4D printing involves advance materials that can be altered by heat, light and water, such as programmable carbon fiber, which is anticipated to witness a healthy growth by 2025 due to its high stiffness, low weight, and tensile strength, according to Grandview Research.

Chaudhary said 4D printing technology will facilitate the development of electronic device manufacturing on plastic foils using organic thin-film transistors, while improved conducting polymers are being developed for organic electronics. Transistors developed with 4D printing techniques will not only have excellent current carrying capacity, she said, but will also have chemical stability and low temperature processing.

Grandview believes there’s a great deal of potential for 4D printing in in the electronics industry, but Chaudhary said there are several barriers, including its initial high cost as only a few companies are developing techniques to support it.

Regardless of the industry where 4D printing is applied, one of its biggest potential benefits is that parts could self-heal rather than requiring replacement if they are fail or are damaged, she said. “Smart materials can be programmed to transform themselves in case there are certain unexpected changes in the actual dimensions or properties of the product.” These materials can initiate preventive measures in case of any exposure to the unusual environmental conditions such as excessive heat or excessive vibrations, Chaudhary added, citing LG’s incorporation of 4D technology into its smartphones, which can repair light scratches on the screen within 24 hours. 

There would be limitations, however. “Although the time taken for synthetic healing is much less than biological healing, it is still not that less and is often more than 24 hours,” she said.  “These materials may stop self-healing after a certain point of time depending on the number of times it healed itself. The timespan totally depends on the material and its area of application.” At this stage, the exact time limit cannot be predicted. 

Because 4D technology is in its nascent stage, there’s much work to be done before the tools are available for full-fledged manufacturing. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology self-assembly lab in collaboration with Stratasys, Ltd., for example, is currently developing materials that are capable of changing dimensions on application of stimuli, she said, and the materials consist of carbon fibers and polymers that are flexible enough to undergo transformation. 

3D provides hints of 4D impact

Although widespread adoption of 4D printing is years away, there are already obvious benefits to the supply chain, including easier transportation and less storage space. Given that it can make a product appear like a simple sheet before application of stimuli, said Chaudhary, the transportation of a large number of sheets would require negligible space and could easily fit into smaller vehicles to be later transformed into real products. “4D printing will reduce transportation and handling costs to a large extent thereby offering immense benefits to the supply chain,” Chaudhary added. “All the precautions and measures taken to transport the product to the end user will be reduced greatly.”

Chaudhary said 3D printing can provide guidance on the impact of 4D printing, noting that value chains today have become more automated, connected and decentralized. “There is a growing need for innovative manufacturing techniques that can match up with the dynamic nature of these supply chains,” she said. “4D printing promises a growing library of smart materials that are conducive to manufacturing and have the ability to manufacture complex geometries.”

4D printing the technique adds time as the fourth dimension to a 3D printed object, which are programmed to change physical dimensions upon application of external stimuli.

4D printing the technique adds time as the fourth dimension to a 3D printed object, which are programmed to change physical dimensions upon application of external stimuli.

There’s no doubt 4D technology will bring significant changes to how products are designed by complementing traditional manufacturing techniques. However, Chaudhary said it’s too early to tell what will happen in next five to 10 years or how will 4D printing impact the value chain. “We expect that over the next 10 to 15 years 4D printing will lead to significant re-shoring of manufacturing activities to countries with high wages or labor cost,” she said. “There are barriers that will challenge the adoption, which include IP infringement and reskilling the workforce since a specialized workforce in printer operation and digital design together with maintenance is of paramount importance before successfully adopting the technology.”

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