4D Printing is Happening now – How Scientists at Harvard are Paving the Way

4D 3D Printing

The concept of 3D printing has taken the world by storm over the past few years and even become affordable enough for many end users to consider. However, now a group of researchers from Harvard University have worked extremely hard to develop a range of 4D printed structures which have the ability to react to water. This method of printing was inspired by the way plants change shape over time in response to environmental stimuli.

Start of Research Back in 2013 Already

As far back as 2013 already, Skylar Tibbits from the Self-Assembly Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had successfully introduced the concept of 4D printing to the world. This concept, which has built on the initial hype that surrounded conventional 3D printing by adding the dimension of time to it, goes on to describe a range of materials and substances that can be developed by means of 3D printing. However, it would be done in such a way that they would later be able to change shape and react in response to various external stimuli such as moisture and/or heat.

Improving on the Initial Idea

Although Tibbits initially demonstrated his idea with a composite of two different materials, other researchers led by a highly regarded materials scientist, Jennifer Lewis from Harvard, have now managed to create the same end results with using just one material instead of two. This system was developed by the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and it makes use of hydrogel that contains microscale “cellulose fibrils,” which have the ability to expand when they are exposed to moisture. Carefully aligning the fibers during the printing process allows the final object to change shape when wet.

A Range of Potential Uses

In addition to the above, researchers went on to create a mathematical model that they would be able to use to plan the actual transformation that the 4D printed objects will undergo. Although the prototype reacts when exposed to water, Lewis mentioned that, if a different formula were to be used for the printing fluid, it would be possible for the same technique to be used to print objects that will be able to change shape in response to light or heat. At some point in the future, it may be possible for the material in question to be altered in such a way that it would be able to transmit or carry electrical current, which could open it up to be used in a wide range of engineering applications.

As time goes on, it could be possible for 4D printing to be used in a wide range of applications and environments. However, at present, it is still very much in its experimental stages, but it could be considered as being a type of “3D printing on steroids” in that it would eventually be able to enable the design of virtually any transformable shape imaginable.