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4D printing already

4D Printing Already?

Reading time: 4 minutes

The next dimension of printing has arrived

3D printing has come a long way since its inception three decades ago - we’re using it to design houses on Mars and construct entire neighborhoods back on Earth. Here at HP®, we’re even building some of our 3D printers out of 3D-printed parts.
Now that 3D printers aren’t just limited to plastics - they can print metals, resins, ceramics, biological materials and more, sometimes all in the same object - they can manufacture designs that could never been implemented before. But all 3D-printed objects share one common element: Once they’ve been printed, they can’t really be changed.
Until now. 4D printing is a growing subset of 3D printing that uses smart materials that can react to external stimuli - things like heat, water, light or electricity - by transforming into new shapes. (The “4D” refers to being able to change shape over time.) This element of change opens up all kinds of new manufacturing possibilities:
Imagine flat-packed furniture that can assemble itself, or a water pipe that can repair itself if it breaks or bursts. Items that are too large for a 3D printer can be printed using a compressed design and then self-assemble on its own.
Just as importantly, many 4D-printed objects are being designed to return to their shape once the stimuli are removed. Imagine a building that repositions itself to brace for an earthquake, then shrinks back to normal afterward.
While 4D printing is still new, the materials it uses have been around for a while now - they’re found in everything from smart clothing to contact lenses. But it’s the latest advances in 3D printing tech - such as printing with multiple materials - that have made their 4D applications possible.
Even though it’s still in the experimental stages, the 4D printing market is expected to be worth upwards of $537 million by 2025. A third of that money comes from the defense industry, with the automotive and healthcare sectors close behind.

Here’s what’s going on in the 4D printing industry right now:

  • Imagine a car interior that can morph to fit whoever’s driving it. MIT’s Self Assembly Lab (which, incidentally, coined the term “4D printing”), is working with BMW on controllable inflatable materials that could one day be used to change your car into whatever you need it to be, whether it’s adjusting the seat pressure or transforming the seats into an inflatable bench for a quick nap.
  • Earlier this year, engineers at Rutgers University announced that they’ve developed new smart materials that can transform to be rigid or spongelike when heated. These metamaterials can be used for everything from expandable solar panels in space to soft robotics and tiny implantable biomedical devices.
  • Biomedical engineers have high hopes for 4D printing’s potential in regenerative medicine. Researchers at George Washington university have developed a 4D bioprinting technique that create multi-responsive “smart structures” for nerve regeneration.
  • Last year a research team in Hong Kong developed the first-ever 4D printing using ceramics. The team developed a ceramic “ink” that can stretch three times its length when heat is applied. Ceramics can transmit electromagnetic signals better than metals and have a high melting rate; the new “ink” will be used for everything from 5G networks to aerospace propulsion.
  • Researchers at Harvard, the University of Illinois and the University of Pittsburgh have been working on 4D materials for the US Army Research Center since 2013. While the public details are vague, the military potential of 4D printing is huge. Imagine a soldier’s uniform that can alter its own camouflage and harden when shrapnel hits it. Or an aerial drone that can land and transform into a land-roaming machine.
While it’s a long way away, 4D printing will have lots of applications for smaller and mid-size businesses as well.
  • More innovative product designs. Instead of having to anticipate all the ways a static object will be used, designers can plot out ways a product can react in different environments after it leaves the factory.
  • More efficient supply chains. 3D printing has made production more customizable, but assembling parts is still a time-intensive process. 4D printing has the potential to reduce assembly time, since a product can be programmed to assemble itself.
  • Less ongoing maintenance. Products that can fix themselves mean less time and money wasted on downtime and spent on repairs.
  • Improved customer service. Giving customers a repair kit that can be expanded when needed - or simply building a product that repairs itself - is an added perk they’ll love.
Have an idea for a 3D (or even 4D) printed object? HP 3D printing solutions has all the best tech that’ll take you from prototype to production.

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