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.
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.