Move over, 3D: 4D printing is now here to change the world

22 Mar 2019

Image: © fotofabrika/

3D printing has promised a revolution in manufacturing, but 4D printing could usher in something truly extraordinary.

New research published to Materials Horizons by a team from Rutgers University has shown that the 3D-printing revolution was just a starting point for what we now call 4D printing.

In a standard 3D-printed design, an object is built from the ground up using a gradual additive process. Its ability to create objects of incredibly intricacy for a multitude of uses – particularly in aerospace and medical sectors – has been heralded as being vital to a number of breakthroughs.

Future Human

However, a number of new flexible, lightweight materials produced by the Rutgers University team have shown themselves to be even more capable.

Unlike 3D-printed objects, those made in 4D can change shape with environmental conditions such as temperature acting as a trigger, and the fourth dimension – time – allowing objects to change shape.

“We believe this unprecedented interplay of materials science, mechanics and 3D printing will create a new pathway to a wide range of exciting applications that will improve technology, health, safety and quality of life,” said senior author of the study, Howon Lee.

The new ‘metamaterials’ created by the team demonstrate pretty unusual and counterintuitive properties not found in nature, with their stiffness capable of being adjusted more than 100-fold in temperatures between 22 degrees Celsius (room temperature) and 90 degrees Celsius.

The materials can be reshaped for a wide variety of purposes and can be temporarily transformed into any deformed shape, and then returned to their original shape on demand when heated. The team believes that these breakthrough materials could lead to better shock absorption, morphing aeroplane or drone wings, soft robotics and tiny implantable biomedical devices.

This isn’t to say that 3D printing will be made obsolete, as one of the largest producers of industrial 3D printers, Markforged, recently announced the closing of a lucrative deal that aims to see its technology produce objects on a scale comparable to regular mass production.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic