4D Printing Is Already on the Table and the Fourth Dimension is Self-Assembly

By Evan Anderson

Shane Wall, CTO of Hewlett- Packard, sat down with Ed Butler at FiRe today to have a chat about the future of 3D printing. While Wall’s predictions and descriptions ranged from 3–30 year timelines, one thing was clear; the future is now.

In particular, Wall described HP’s pivot towards a new, blended reality. What does that mean? It means we live in an era which regularly blends our physical world with the digital. From the Internet of Things to wearable tech, we regularly send and receive digital data to track and interact with our physical activities. The physical and the digital are no longer two distinct categories.

A leading example of this shift is 3D printing, one of HP’s new focus areas. According to wall, 3D transformation is tantamount to the future of production. Wall explained that “3D transformation […] is the next industrial revolution, and we mean it in that full sense.”

So far we hominids have made products the same way throughout history. We stage in raw materials, manufacture them into value-added products, and then stage those products in distribution centers and optimize the entire chain. He who optimizes the chain best (whether with production efficiency, better marketing, or faster distribution) wins.

That system, says Wall, will be turned on its head over the next 30 years. We will move to a model of democratized design in production. It will be simpler than ever to design the products we actually want and print them instantly.

Wall cautioned that to-date 3D printing has seen lots of hype, and often in its least valuable areas. Media portrayal of 3D technology tends to focus on the consumer side, highlighting cheap home printers that tend to produce low quality goods very slowly. This is a system of production of what are termed “extruded parts”, essentially a “glue gun on a table” model with low quality output. That total market, Wall noted, is a tiny percent of the broader market served by 3D printing. The real progress, he stated, will be in larger commercial and industrial applications, at least in the near term.

Commercial methods will focus on “centered laser-ing”. Using this method, a laser traps a bed of powder and fuses it, resulting in better quality parts. This technology is still slow and limited in quality, but the next 3–5 years, according to Wall, will see a major transformation in efficiency.

What is more, HP is developing a new 3D printing methodology, multi-jet fusion. Due to be released sometime next year, Wall explained that multi-jet will revolutionize 3D printing. Operating 10 times faster than other processes at just 20% of the cost with a significantly extended materials list, multi-jet allows control at the voxel level (a voxel is, in essence, a 3D pixel). The implication? You could print something as complex as a fully functional guitar with color and material differentiation, fluidity between rigid and flexible parts, and electronics.

A major concern in this field is intellectual property. Clearly the ability to print something on demand opens a world of illicit copying, from basic consumer goods to machine parts, guns to fake drugs. However, Wall noted that we can track digital representations and diagrams online. What is more, 3D watermarks can be placed in products from specific printers. While it will be far from simple, Wall noted that technology exists that allows tracking to show how a part was printed, who owns it, and which printer created it.

Perhaps most fascinating in Wall’s interview was his outlook on the future of 3D parts. How could 3D printing get more mind-boggling? Wall sees 4D self-assembly printing coming forward in the next 30 years. 4D parts would be printed with specific characteristics at their boundaries. These characteristics will be activated to stimulate joining for self-assembly.

In short, picture that you have multiple parts with certain properties on their edges; place them together, add water, and they assemble themselves; or, as noted by BBC Senior Broadcast Journalist Ed Butler, “No more Ikea struggles”.

Wall explained that as parts increase in strength and application (we are already manufacturing airplane parts using 3D printing technology) there will be societal implications. The removal of human participation in production requires some forethought and planning, to be sure. Another caveat is that 3D printing will not remove the need for the basic materials, such as rare earth metals, that we find problematic today.

All caveats aside, Wall noted that the system HP is creating today, a system wherein open platform printers allow us to advance faster than any individual firm could do so, will lead to a new era of production. It will be an era of rapid social change, massive industrial advances, and a streamlined lifestyle previously unimaginable.

The takeaway? Buckle your 3D printed, flexible-rigid integrated, self-assembling seat belts.