• Nadine Rinderknecht

4D Printing (Sheet No. 2)

Updated: Dec 15, 2021

4D Printing enables multifaceted transformations of the printed product. But what exactly is 4D Printing and what role do so-called smart materials play in it?


Figure 1

Time for the next dimension

If yesterday we programmed computers and machines, today we program matter itself. - Skylar Tibbits

The 3D printing process, i.e. a method of depositing materials layer by layer to create physical objects, was patented as early as the 1980s. However, only falling prices for 3D printers and printing raw materials as well as increasing construction speed and accuracy have led to a growing commercial and private user group. Commercial use allows companies to produce prototypes or individualized products, among other things. In addition, private users can print products directly from their homes. This proliferation of 3D printers is accompanied by a global user network as a result of digital platforms for 3D models, but also by local printing. As a result, manufacturing through 3D printing has a significant impact on value and supply chains. By printing products themselves or locally, the end user (commercial or private) can bypass many of the traditional value creation stages such as production and transport, which in turn encourages companies to create new business models.

However, products from 3D printers are only static in nature: they cannot change their shape or function in a programmable way; adapt to the user or their environment. For this requires a transformation in time. Time, i.e. the fourth dimension, is therefore also the novelty of the next "generation" of printing methods. 4D printing is used to print a product that has been programmed to undergo certain transformations. Thus, after the revolution in hardware and software in the last 50 years, a new revolution is emerging: the "materials revolution". It is no longer just computers and machines that can be programmed, but also matter itself, which can also transform digital information into physical performance and functionality.

As with 3D printing before, the user base of 4D printers is likely to grow as 4D printers and printing raw materials such as smart materials face a price drop. At present, however, widespread use of 4D printing is not yet foreseeable, also because of the relatively low level of research into 4D software and smart materials. Accordingly, in the Gartner Hype Cycles for Emerging Technologies from 2016 to 2018, the technology was still rated as having more than 10 years to reach the plateau in productivity (mainstream). In the current 2019 Hype Cycle, it is even omitted. As a result, commercial use will be clearly the main focus in the coming years.

The impact of 3D printing on value and supply chains as well as innovative business models can then also be seen in 4D printing. Last but not least, there is another similarity between the two printing technologies: The commercial and private use of 4D printing generates new legal challenges - also for copyright law.


3D Printing

3D Printing Technology (or just "3D Printing" or "3D Printing") is a generic term for additive manufacturing processes in which one or more materials are applied layer by layer to the substrate using a digital CAD model, resulting in a three-dimensional object.

The first step in the printing process is to create a 3D model of the object to be printed in a computer-aided design (CAD) file known as the CAD model. This can be created using CAD software or by laser measurement or optical scanning. Typically, the CAD file is then converted to stereo lithography format (STL). In this way, the surface of the 3D model is represented by means of small triangles and can thus be printed - after the STL file has been prepared and the 3D printer has been set up (e.g. setting the printing speed). In this process, the layers are gradually applied to the substrate by computer. After the layers have cooled or hardened, the component can be removed and reworked if necessary (e.g. grinding, polishing).


4D Printing

4D Printing Technology (or just "4D Printing" or "4D Printing") is an evolution of 3D printing (product) by adding time as a fourth dimension. Back in 2013, Skylar Tibbits, founder and director of the Self-Assembly Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), coined the term "4D Printing" at a TED conference:

The idea behind 4D printing is that you take multi-material 3D printing […] and you add a new capability, which is transformation, that right off the bed, the parts can transform from one shape to another shape directly on their own. And this is like robotics without wires or motors. - Skylar Tibbits

So-called smart materials are printed by means of 3D printing processes. These materials change their shape and/or function in a programmable manner after completion of printing in response to certain stimuli (e.g. water, ultraviolet light, heat, pressure).

A prominent example of a 4D printed product is a strand composed of so-called active and rigid materials. When the strand is immersed in water, the parts made of rigid material remain rigid, while those made of active material expand in such a way that the strand deforms into the letters "MIT" (Figure 2, see the video here). Another example is a pipe that transports water with wave motion, which could make pumps largely superfluous.

Figure 2

One type of 4D printing is self-assembly. This is described by Tibbits as follows: "Self-assembly can be defined as the process by which disordered parts build an ordered structure without humans or machines." If individual, disordered printed products are placed in a certain environment (e.g. water), they independently assemble themselves into an ordered structure. This structure can then be static (so-called static self-assembly) or dynamic (so-called dynamic self-assembly). As an example for static Self-assembly we consider 240 single parts, which assemble in a moving container to red and white dodecahedrons. Other (future) examples are self-assembling satellites in space. In addition, examples of dynamic self-assembly include metal spheres that assemble into a larger structure and break down again into smaller pieces. This process can repeat itself potentially infinitely. On the other hand, certain material systems can also disassemble into their individual parts again for the purpose of recycling or changing functions (so-called self-disassembly).

In addition, a printed product can be programmed to repair itself (so-called self-repair). For instance, certain pipes can repair their own cracks.


Advantages and disadvantages of 4D printing

An important advantage of 4D Printing is the independent adaptability of the printed products. They can change themselves without having to rely on (power-consuming) external devices or electromechanical systems (e.g., motor drive). As a result, the number of components, assembly time, susceptibility to errors, and manufacturing costs can be minimized. In addition, the printed products adapt to the needs of the user or to changing environmental conditions. For instance, shoes become waterproof when it rains, water pipes adapt to changes in the ground, or outdated objects can be recycled more easily using self-disassembly.

However, the complexity of this new technology has a negative impact on the hardware and software to be used. The hardware (printed product) requires complex programming (e.g., using nanotechnology). In addition, it typically has to be multi-material, i.e. made of several (smart) materials, and able to be printed accurately. Furthermore, the software must be able to simulate the object to be printed and its transformations as precisely as possible, as well as to perform material optimizations for the purpose of more efficient structures.

Like any technology, 4D printing or rather its products can be abused, for example by being hacked. In the future, for example, aircraft wings made of smart materials that adapt their shape to external conditions for maximum lift and minimum drag could be hacked and deformed to crash the airplane. As a result, protective measures should be integrated into the product as early as the programming stage to prevent such hacker attacks.


Key Take-Aways: Sheet No. 2 (Swiss Copyright Law)

  • The 4D printed product, which transforms in form and/or function as a result of stimuli, is an expression of human programming and not of chance.

  • The direct perceptibility of the work exists only if the stimuli actually affect the product and it subsequently undergoes the entire transformation process. However, indirect perceptibility of the work through a technical tool (e.g., 4D model) is sufficient in Swiss copyright law.

  • A changing object that embodies the work is not unknown to the concept of work (e.g., ephemeral works).

  • 4D works often qualify as works of fine or applied art.

  • Even though 4D printed products tend to open up more design possibilities as a result of their programmable 4D nature, individuality is not to be judged more strictly.

  • A product that embodies a scanned natural object such as a water plant and, as a result of programming, moves in the water like such a plant, should not enjoy copyright protection (no aesthetic creativity). However, protection under patent law could exist (technical creativity of the programming).

  • The transformation is part of the originality, since it also functions as a means of expression. With 4D works, the overall impression therefore refers not only to a specific point in time such as the starting or end point of the transformation, but to the entire transformation process (4D overall impression). Because the 4D work is embodied (with the Self-assembly) in individual parts that - held together by the transformation - form a single work after the will of the author.

  • However, the 4D overall impression can be limited for reasons of practicability.

  • The ability of a work to repair its damage autonomously has in principle only a use value and thus no originality.

  • The transformation diversity of a work can make its assignment to a single work type difficult. Theoretically, a product could be assigned to genus A at one point in time and to genus B at another.

  • A 4D complete work exists when the connection between the individual works - especially in the form of transformation - is itself original.

For more information go to Sheet No. 2!


Further reading

  • Alessandra Ghi/Francesca Rossetti, 4D Printing: An Emerging Technology in Manufacturing?, in: Leonardo Caporarello et al. (Eds.), Digitally Supported Innovation: A Multi-Disciplinary View on Enterprise, Public Sector and User Innovation, Cham 2016

  • Ana Ramalho/Eduardo Lauro, What will happen when 4D printing hits design town? Copyright and Design law perspectives, in: B. Pasa (Ed.), Il Design, L’Innovazione Tecnologica e Digitale, Neapel 2020

  • Antje Brambrink, 4D printing and the medical patent landscape, 16 August 2019

  • Athina Papadopoulou/Jared Laucks/Skylar Tibbits, From Self-Assembly to Evolutionary Structures, in: Architectural Design 87(4) (2017), 28 ff.

  • Laura E. Powell, The Patentability of Digital “Manufactures” as 3D Printing Expands Into the 4D World, in: Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law 19(1) (2016), 177 ff.

  • Ma SuQian et al., Recent progress in 4D printing of stimuli-responsive polymeric materials, in: Science China Technological Sciences 63(4) (2020), 532 ff.

  • Nayef Al-Rodhan, Programmable Matter: 4D Printing’s Promises and Risks, in: Georgetown Journal of International Affairs (2014)

  • Skylar Tibbits et al., 4D Printing and Universal Transformation, in: Proceedings of the Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture (2014), 539 ff.

  • Skylar Tibbits, 4D Printing: Multi-Material Shape Change, in: Architectural Design 84(1) (2014), 116 ff.

  • Skylar Tibbits, An Introduction to Active Matter, in: Skylar Tibbits (Ed.), Active Matter, Cambridge 2017

  • Skylar Tibbits, Special Issue: Autonomous Assembly: Designing for a New Era of Collective Construction, in: Architectural Design 87(4) (2017), 6 ff.

  • Sungwook Chung/Sang Eun Song/Young Tae Cho, Effective Software Solutions for 4D Printing: A Review and Proposal, in: International Journal of Precision Engineering and Manufacturing-Green Technology 4(3) (2017), 359 ff.

  • Thomas A. Campbell/Skylar Tibbits/Banning Garrett, The next Wave: 4D Printing, Programming the material World, Washington 2014


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