Tech Translated: 4D printing

  • June 04, 2024

What is 4D printing? 4D printing, as the name suggests, introduces an extra dimension to 3D printing: the ability to change over time. “4D printing is the next evolution of additive manufacturing, extending its flexibility by giving nonliving objects the capacity to respond to environmental stimuli like living creatures,” says Scott Likens, Global AI and Innovation Technology Leader, PwC United States.

4D printing works by embedding sections of flexible polymer—for example, hydrogel embedded with cellulose—into otherwise rigid structures during manufacture. These flexible sections then activate, similarly to how a dried flower submerged in water “blooms” again.

What business problems can it address?

A 4D-printed object can move, warp, transform, or even self-assemble right out of the printer, requiring only exposure to simple external stimuli such as heat, light, or water—no additional components (like motors) required. Many 4D examples in development use existing 3D printers, but others make use of more exotic innovations such as metamaterials (synthetic materials with unusual properties usually not found in nature). This means there is a plethora of potential use cases.

  • 4D printing could enable infrastructure to be made more resilient—for example, pipes that expand if they freeze, or bridges that flex during earthquakes and then self-heal their cracks.
  • In the consumer space, 4D printing could mean bespoke products at scale—think clothing that automatically tailors itself once it touches your skin, or sneakers that always support your sole perfectly. Adidas is already applying 4D printing with its 4DFWD sneaker, whose flexible lattice sole can convert downward pressure into forward momentum.
  • In aerospace, 4D wings could dynamically change shape to improve aerodynamic efficiency during flight.
  • In healthcare, generic protein chains that then fold into specific shapes could be given to patients, which would deliver individualized medications as and when needed. Additionally, bespoke prosthetics could be printed on-demand in hospitals from generic designs. Researchers are already printing 4D scaffolds for human bone and tissue growth, delivering smart implants to patients that adapt to their specific bodies.

How does it create value?

4D printing isn’t just about enabling the development of innovative new products. If this technology can be effectively scaled, it could allow companies to merge the manufacturing and supply chain revolution of 3D printing with the economic efficiencies of the self-assembly distribution model—with, in some cases, a product that assembles itself.

“In its most basic form, this means a flat board could be shipped to a consumer and then turned into a complex piece of furniture simply through pointing a hair dryer at it. But this flat-pack concept could apply to objects as large as transmission towers, turbine blades, or emergency shelters,” Likens says. “These applications integrate closely with smart cities and cognitive buildings. 4D-printed objects perform their tasks automatically, as an inherent behavior of their design, without the need for active power delivery, and with dramatically reduced maintenance costs due to the lack of replaceable moving parts. It will be a key enabler of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

Who should be paying attention?

This technology is at the forefront of manufacturing innovation, so leaders such as COOs, CTOs, CSOs, CIOs, CROs, and chief engineers/research and development leads in industries such as aerospace and defense, capital projects and infrastructure, engineering and construction, industrial manufacturing, and transportation and logistics should all consider how it could impact their businesses.

How can businesses prepare?

If 4D printing sounds like it may have applications for your organization, Likens recommends that you assign a working group to research the topic fully, and identify possible effects of 4D printing for your business in product design, manufacturing, and distribution. “Remember that potential applications may have impacts up and down your entire value chain, so it’s worth considering your entire ecosystem to assess the impact,” he says. It may be worth investing in R&D, either working internally or in collaboration with other organizations, so that you can gain first- (or early-) mover advantage and potentially unlock new revenue streams.

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Tom Archer

Tom Archer

Global Technology Consulting & Alliances Leader, Transformation Platform Co-Leader, PwC United States