Since 3D Printing became a widely-used technology in the past decade, its impact on the Biomedical field has been astronomical. As documented on this blog and elsewhere, 3D printing technology has enabled cheaper and more efficient prosthetics, given doctors opportunities to practice complicated surgeries, helped researchers take the first steps towards printing organs, repair damaged nerves, create skin grafts, among many other life-saving advancements.
While we can barely keep up with all the new healthcare benefits of 3D Printing technology surfacing every week, there’s now a new type of printing on the block that promises to amplify these advancements even more.
What is 4D Printing?
4D Printing is in many ways just like 3D Printing, except that the goal is to design objects that can change shape after they are printed when exposed to some sort of external stimuli, such as water or heat. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were the first to experiment with technology.
“We can now generate structures that will change shape and functionality without external intervention,” says Dan Raviv, lead author on the study published in Scientific Reports in 2014. They 3D Printed an object that was able to expand into different shapes when put in contact with a water absorbent material.
“The most exciting part is the numerous applications that can emerge from this work,” said Raviv. “This is not just a cool project or an interesting solution, but something that can change the lives of many.”
Researchers with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES) at the University of Wollongong are already finding uses for the technology in additive manufacturing by creating a valve that changes shape depending on the water temperature around it.
"So it's an autonomous valve, there's no input necessary other than water; it closes itself when it detects hot water," said Professor Marc in het Panhuis of ACES.
What Does this Mean for Biomedicine?
Frost & Sullivan recently released a report about the potential uses of the new 4D Printing technology for healthcare. Aside from its superior performance, quality, and efficiency compared to 3D Printing, 4D printing will be able to create new biomaterials with increased capabilities. The areas expected to benefit include tissue engineering, artificial organs, design of nanoparticles, the creation of nanorobots for chemotherapy, as well as the possibility of self-assembling human-scale biomaterials.
At the moment, the cost of the technology has kept 4D Printing out biomedical research projects. Yet as additive manufacturing continues to unlock the possibilities of 4D Printing, it likely won’t last for long.
According to Jithendranath Rabindranath, a Research Analyst with Technical Insights, “After a few years of mass commercialization, the cost of employing 4-D printing technology will decrease, prompting several companies across a wide range of industries to integrate this technology into their manufacturing systems. Uptake will also strengthen due to the positive funding environment, which encourages confederations, research laboratories, universities, startups and big market participants especially in North America to invest in R&D.”