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Scientists take "4D printing" a step further


October 24, 2013

Prof. H. Jerry Qi with identical 4D-printed objects in their flat and folded states

Prof. H. Jerry Qi with identical 4D-printed objects in their flat and folded states

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Using a 3D printer, people can already determine the length, width and depth of an object that they create. Thanks to research being conducted at the University of Colorado, Boulder, however, a fourth dimension can now be included – time. And no, we're not talking about how long it takes to 3D-print an item. Instead, it's now possible to print objects that change their shape at a given time.

The scientists, led by Prof. H. Jerry Qi, have developed a "4D printing" process in which shape-memory polymer fibers are deposited in key areas of a composite material item as it's being printed. By carefully controlling factors such as the location and orientation of the fibers, those areas of the item will fold, stretch, curl or twist in a predictable fashion when exposed to a stimulus such as water, heat or mechanical pressure.

A 4D-printed "polymer airplane" that folds itself into shape

The concept was proposed earlier this year by MIT's Skylar Tibbits, who used his own 4D printing process to create a variety of small self-assembling objects. "We advanced this concept by creating composite materials that can morph into several different, complicated shapes based on a different physical mechanism,” said Martin L. Dunn of the Singapore University of Technology and Design, who collaborated with Qi on the latest research.

This means that one 4D-printed object could change shape in different ways, depending on the type of stimulus to which it was exposed. That functionality could make it possible (for example) to print a photovoltaic panel in a flat shape, expose it to water to cause it to fold up for shipping, and then expose it to heat to make it fold out to yet another shape that's optimal for catching sunlight.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Applied Physics Letters.

Source: University of Colorado, Boulder

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Mass produce this, huge apps alone for business & engineering.

Stephen Russell

I would ask to correct the Author:

Time is NOT the 4th Dimension! If you were a 2D person living on a plane. As you move from where you are to any other place you would experience "Time". If you were a 1D person living on a line as you move from where you are to any other place you would experience "Time". Time as Eisenstein state is "relative".... not a dimension.

Daniel Schmitt

Whooa, this remind me a inventor

www.youtube.com/watch?v=ejqcy_oXUc8 www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehyyvqV2rLI



I agree with Daniel there is no 4th dimension to whatever is there on this article. Get your facts right people.

David Besada

I agree that time is not a 4th dimension.To be fair it's very relative to call things in 1d or 2d as everything have 3d even on the really small scale.

Arkadiusz Konrady

As a teenager I struggled to envisage something two dimensional in this 3d world, and finally after a brain burning session, I thought of something that we see everyday that is 2d = shadows!


Time is a 'Dimension' as it is a measurable quantity of a thing. As far as we can tell, in our universe we have 3 spatial dimensions and 1 temporal dimension. We can measure the X, Y & Z and also it's duration. Thus we have 4 dimensions.


A shadow is not a thing. It is a lack of light surrounded by light. It's like saying a hole in a piece of paper is 2D. The hole and the shadow are only relative to their surroundings. Take away their surroundings and they have no relevance.

DJ Alice

@DJ Alice

You can measure the area of a shadow, its luminosity, etc. It has 'dimension' as much as 'time' has dimension. True, you may be essentially measuring the absence of a thing, but to say that it is 'not a thing' is like saying a hole in a piece of paper is not a thing. I think @MonacoJim 's thought is quite poetic. I think the trickier point is that shadows exist as inverse projections 'on' a 3d surface and thus exist within 3d space, but because they are essentially totally flat 'concepts' rather than physical 'objects,' I think it is perfectly valid and beautiful to proclaim them 2-dimensional, much as you think it is perfectly valid and beautiful to declare time as a 'dimension!'


They're getting closer to the time when a robot is printed that gets up and presses the PRINT button. Then the next robot is printed and that gets up and presses the PRINT button. Etc. Invest in "toner".

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