4D Printing Could Create Shape-Shifting Medical Devices

We appear to have entered the next stage of our technological evolution – one that goes from the theoretical to the practical at an ever-increasing pace. The wonders of 3D printing, for example, are beginning to enter mass public consciousness. An article we recently reposted covering 3D printed houses that can be built in a matter of hours for less than $5,000 was one of our most widely read and shared to date. Other recent developments such as 3D printed transparent glass, touch sensitive 3D printed objects and 3D printed prosthetics for the disabled (even for dogs) are also gaining heightened interest vs. only 6 months ago. And, yet – as is becoming typical in our high-tech fast-paced world – we are barely done scratching the surface of one technology when something even more revolutionary comes along to blow our minds.

Whereas 3D printing opens up incredible creative possibilities and decentralized solutions to manufacturing and healthcare among other areas, 4D printing is the technology that apparently could literally change the shape of the future.

The secret is “smart shape memory polymers (SMPs)” that enable 3D printed materials to modify their structure when heat, moisture or light is applied.
Using components made from smart shape-memory materials with slightly different responses to heat, researchers have demonstrated a four-dimensional printing technology that allowed creation of complex self-folding structures.

The technology, developed by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), could be used to create 3-D structures that sequentially fold themselves from components that had been flat or rolled into a tube for shipment. The components could respond to stimuli such as temperature, moisture or light in a way that is precisely timed to create space structures, deployable medical devices, robots, toys and range of other structures.
Thus far we have seen the 4th dimension addressed in robotics inspired by Origami, essentially machines that can self-assemble and fold back upon themselves. One was even designed to enter the human body and dissolve. As amazing as that seems, those were extremely limited by comparison.

The ability to create objects that change shape in a controlled sequence over time is enabled by printing multiple materials with different dynamic mechanical properties in prescribed patterns throughout the 3-D object. When these components are then heated, each SMP responds at a different rate to change its shape, depending on its own internal clock. By carefully timing these changes, 3-D objects can be programmed to self-assemble.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I have to point out once again that these press releases often begin by playing up what is normally best received by most readers – toys, medical devices, robots? Sounds like fun!

And technology certainly can and should be fun. The ability to create new types of toys and create novel medical and architectural solutions is to be applauded. However, later in the press release we see some red flags to indicate where this technology is really going if we don’t acknowledge that there is an unfortunate darker side that is also being explored.

First – “The work is funded by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research…” The fact that we currently have a military-driven, trickle-down standard of technology can’t be denied. Another recent development that we covered called “E-Skin” also portrayed a new world filled with all kinds of cool interactive materials, as well as increased feeling for those who rely on prosthetics … until later on we get to what really was meant by “augmented performance” – namely the possibility for humanoid robots that can feel, supersoldiers, and invisible drones.

Second – After a number of sections filled with brain fog-inducing technical details, near the end we have:

The research team envisions a broad range of applications for their technology. For example, an unmanned air vehicle might change shape from one designed for a cruise mission to one designed for a dive. Also possible would be 3-D components designed to fold flat or be rolled up into tubes so they could be easily transported, and then later deformed into their intended 3D configuration for use.
Shape-shifting drones and probably shape-shifting military equipment for easier transport. Or “toys and robots” if you prefer…

While we should not live in abject fear of technology, the only way we are going to curb the elements we don’t agree with is to become informed so that we can inform others about the future that is coming while it still remains only a potential future. Please leave your thoughts and comments below.

Provided by Jason Erickson