Technology: New 4D Printer Unveiled

A team of researchers have developed a 4D printer, a progress that promises to bring changes in aerospace, medicine and other industries.

The 4D printer is able to print 3D objects which can change shape after exposure to heat, humidity and/or light, and then revert back to its original form. Furthermore, whereas most commercial printers can only print 4D structures in one material only, the new printer is able to bring together different varieties.

The team presented its creation at the National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) late March.

“We are on the cusp of creating a new generation of devices that could vastly expand the practical applications for 3-D and 4-D printing,” said team leader H Jerry Qi, who is also a professor in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“Our prototype printer integrates many features that appear to simplify and expedite the processes used in traditional 3-D printing.

“As a result, we can use a variety of materials to create hard and soft components at the same time, incorporate conductive wiring directly into shape-changing structures, and ultimately set the stage for the development of a host of 4-D products that could reshape our world.”

The team is currently working with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to find out the technology’s suitability for printing prosthetic hands in children with malformed arms.

“Only a small group of children have this condition, so there isn’t a lot of commercial interest in it and most insurance does not cover the expense,” Qi said. “But these children have a lot of challenges in their daily lives, and we hope our new 4D printer will help them overcome some of these difficulties.”

The printer, which was funded by HP, the National Science Foundation, the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and Northrop Grumman, cost approximately US$350,000 to build, Qi revealed.

The creation received positive response at the meeting. “We just had a conversation where we were dreaming of that kind of machine,” said Geoff Spinks, materials engineering professor at the University of Wollongong. “I’d imagine in the near future we might have 16 different types of printheads, or even more.”