3D Printing Transitions To 4D

3D / 4D printing inflatable structures: video

3D printing is in itself a new technology, but some enterprising researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute are already taking it a step further by adding another dimension – time. Taking inspiration from plant structures, 4D printing allows for manufacturing of objects that change their shape over time.

The new printer doesn’t spew out heated plastic, but rather lays down layers of hydrogel, a water absorbent material that is mixed with cellulose fibres harvested from plant matter. When the creation is placed in water it absorbs it and swell. The neat trick is that by carefully controlling the alignment of the fibres in the gel lattice, the swelling too can be controlled, resulting in a structure that changes in a predetermined manner.
 
“It is wonderful to be able to design and realize, in an engineered structure, some of nature’s solutions,” said L. Mahadevan, one of the researchers behind the project.

Even more complex structures – and far more useful than an artificial orchid – could be developed by integrating other materials into the design, or example, materials activated by heat or electricity.

“What’s remarkable about this 4D printing advance is that it enables the design of almost any arbitrary, transformable shape from a wide range of available materials with different properties and potential applications, truly establishing a new platform for printing self-assembling, dynamic micro scale structures that could be applied to a broad range of industrial and medical applications,” said Wyss Institute Founding Director Donald Ingber.

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