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As 3D Printing Emerges, Researchers Working on 4D Printing

June 23, 2014


Many futurists believe we are entering an era in which customization and personalization will be commonplace. That presents a real challenge for manufacturers. As Bruce Bradshaw explains, “With traditional manufacturing methods, it’s not practical to manufacture a single item or short run of products — it’s simply too expensive, in terms of both time and money. Securing factory space, setting up a production line, and procuring jigs and fixtures all incur substantial costs that can’t be justified for a few items.” [“How 3D Printing Is Revolutionizing Manufacturing,” Manufacturing.net, 28 April 2014] He also believes that 3D printing (or additive manufacturing) is about to change all that. He explains:

“What if there were a way to fill those needs — a handful of parts to restock low inventory, a specialized tool or three prototypes for testing — for far less expense? And what if those items could be created overnight, in-house, in a hands-off process? That’s exactly what 3D printing technology offers manufacturers. The freedom to test out more ideas; to make exactly what’s needed, whenever it’s needed; to customize parts and tools for unique applications; and ultimately, to make better products.”

Traditional manufacturers are not the only companies imagining how 3D printing could change the world as we know it. Dominic Basulto reports that companies like Amazon believe that “3D printing is about changing the supply side of the retail business model as much as the demand side.” [“How 3D printing could transform Amazon and online shopping,” Washington Post, 13 March 2014] He explains:

“3D printing is not just about offering more and more consumer goods in more and more categories so that Amazon can make more and more money (although that is surely part of it). It could be that it’s about transforming the online retail model based on our changing notions of scarcity — scarcity of product as well as scarcity of shelf space – in the digital world. In the current retail model, Internet retailers such as Amazon stockpile products, store them in a warehouse, and then deliver them once a customer orders them as quickly and cheaply as possible. Amazon has an edge over traditional retailers (i.e. mom-and-pop book stores) because it can offer more products with nearly unlimited shelf space, thereby driving down the price of its products for consumers. Instead of spending money on costly brick-and-mortar locations, Amazon can focus on increasing the efficiency of its warehouse operations in order to increase its margins on the sales of physical products. In the new model, though, 3D printing could be used to deliver a just-in-time retail experience, in which Amazon wouldn’t need to maintain a network of warehouses around the country filled with products, and wouldn’t need to invest in drones to deliver those products. Theoretically, one day Amazon might just sell the design file for a product, and the consumer would print the design file at home with a 3D printer in the comfort of his or her living room.”

Frankly, I’m not convinced what Basulto describes is a business model that will work very well. For one thing, it assumes that 3D printers will become as ubiquitous as inkjet printers. I’m not sure that is a very good assumption. Even if home 3D printers do sell well, the feedstocks that will be available for use in personal 3D printers could drastically reduce the number and types of products that could be printed. And, even if a wide variety of feedstocks become available for home use, consumers are unlikely to have wide variety of such material on hand most of the time. Why should the inventory burden be shifted to the consumer? For those reasons, I’m guessing that home 3D printers will remain a novelty for most consumers. Consumers, however, will welcome the opportunity to buy unique customized items from vendors and manufacturers. That’s why I think Bradshaw’s prediction that additive manufacturer will revolutionize manufacturing is closer to the mark.


Even as the additive manufacturing revolution is taking shape, researchers are already looking for the next process that will advance it. The most promising candidate is being labeled 4D printing. That nomenclature is a bit misleading. The objects being printed using this new technique don’t mysteriously appear in a new dimension; rather, they transform themselves into other shapes once they’ve been manufactured. Randy Rieland discusses where this notion was developed and how it can be used. [“Forget the 3D Printer: 4D Printing Could Change Everything,” Smithsonian, 16 May 2014] He writes:

“These days, 3D printing seems to be at the core of most new research ventures, whether it’s developing ways to print entire meals or recreating facial features to repair a patient’s face. But Skylar Tibbits wants to up the ante: He’s hoping 4D printing will be the thing of the not-so-far future. The name for his concept, Tibbits admits, was a bit lighthearted at first. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tibbits and researchers from the firms Stratasys and Autodesk Inc were trying to come up with a way of describing the objects they were creating on 3D printers — objects that not only could be printed, but thanks to geometric code, could also later change shape and transform on their own. The name stuck, and now the process they developed — which turns code into ‘smart objects’ that can self-assemble or change shape when confronted with a change in its environment — could very well pop up in a number of industries, from construction to athletic wear.”

Rieland goes on to explain that in 2013 Tibbits was given a lab (the Self-Assembly Lab) and a goal. The goal was to determine the possibility of making objects that could transform themselves without the use of wires, sensors, actuators, chips, or motors. Tibbits first break was teaming up with Stratasys, a leading 3D printing firm. Researchers at Stratasys told Tibbits that they “had developed a printing material that expands by 150 percent when placed in water. It sounded promising. But the real question was how to bring precision to that transformation so an object could unfold, curl and form specific angles instead of just swelling up like a bloated sponge. Tibbits’ answer: Geometry.” To see what Tibbits and his team have been doing, I suggest watching the following video of talk that Tibbits presented at a TED event.



Tibbits isn’t the only researcher at MIT working on self-assembling structures. Brooks Hays reports that engineers at MIT have developed a robot that is “first delivered from a 3D printer and then heated to trigger its self-assembly.” [“Easy bake robot: MIT develops 3D-printed, self-assembling robot,” UPI, 2 June 2014] Hays continues:

“When it comes out of the 3D printer, the robot is just a sheet made of a polymer called polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. The sheet is sandwiched between two rigid polyester films. Slits cut into the films affect how the PVC sheet will fold when it is heated. ‘You’re doing this really complicated global control that moves every edge in the system at the same time,’ explained lead researcher Daniela Rus, an engineering and computer science professor at MIT. ‘You want to design those edges in such a way that the result of composing all these motions, which actually interfere with each other, leads to the correct geometric structure.’ … Similar print-then-fold techniques — using a polyester coated with aluminum — were employed by the MIT engineers to build the electronic components to power the robot. … The same folding technology could be used to help laypersons assemble and install advanced electronics.”

If you watched the video of Tibbits’ TED talk, you might have been impressed the same way I was when he discussed the possibilities for 4D printed objects in the “built world” (i.e., the complicated infrastructure that we install such as water systems, electrical grids, transportation systems, and so forth). Creating structures flexible and “smart” enough to change with the environment could increase efficiency and prevent or mitigate disasters. Home 3D printing may not catch on in the near-term; but, hopefully, manufacturing smart infrastructure components will.

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