3D and 4D Printing - The Next Big Things

November 9, 2013 Stephen Murgatroyd
The word “innovation” gets overused. I know, I have been writing about innovation for over thirty years and have had responsibility for drafting policies, strategies and structures all linked to making innovation happen. I have also led innovation skills workshops and leadership development workshops focused on innovation.

From time to time, true breakthrough disruptive innovation happens rarely. The internet is a breakthrough innovation which has disrupted a great many sectors of industry – publishing, movies, radio, music, travel, banking to name just a few.  Synthetic biology will also be a disruptive breakthrough innovation, especially in terms of the treatment of dirty water, foods and energy.

At a conference recently, I spent time exploring what three dimensional (3D) printing will do for the housing industry, You may be surprised to learn that two companies – one in London and one in Amsterdam – are racing to be the first to perfect a process for the printing of 3D houses.  Giant 3D printers can build a 2,500-square-foot house in as little as 20 hours. The Contour Crafting 3D printers could even do the electrical work, plumbing, tiling, finishing work and painting.  The walls are hollow to save on materials and make them lighter, but their strength clocks in at about 10,000 psi -- more than traditional housing walls. Contour Crafting will save the construction 20 percent to 25 percent in financing and 25 percent to 30 percent in materials. The biggest savings would come in labor, where Contour Crafting would save 45 percent to 55 percent by using 3D printers instead of humans. There would also be fewer CO2 emissions and less energy used. You can see a presentation about this here.

Just as I got my head around this, I met and spent time with a business man seeking to commercialize what is being referred to as 4D printing. The new technology, as he explained, involves printing 3D objects that change after they've been printed—a self assembly process whereby printed material forms itself into another shape after being subjected to an energy source, e.g. heat, electricity, light, sound, or submersion in water. The concept draws inspiration from nature which has the ability to self-replicate and repair itself in response to external environmental conditions.

For example, products will use responsive fillers embedded within a hydrogel. This will open up new routes for producing the next generation of smart sensors, coatings, textiles, and structural components – for example, furniture that responds to changing moods or conditions (warmer colours in winter, cooler in summer).

So we have two technologies – 3D and 4D printing – which could be disruptive and transformative for building, materials, technology, textiles and other sectors. Watch this space to better understand just how disruptive these technologies will be.
Written by Stephen Murgatroyd - contact stephen.murgatroyd@shaw.ca for permissions.
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