Is 4D printing next for healthcare?

By Mike Miliard
10:13 AM
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Years away from widespread commercialization, but impact could be profound
Abstract cube illustration

The healthcare industry will be among the first to reap the benefits of emerging four-dimensional printing technology, according to a new report from Frost & Sullivan.

[See also: Triple aim]

The shortest definition? 4D printing depends on an emerging concept called self-assembly: “a process by which disordered parts build an ordered structure through only local interaction,” as MIT research scientist Skylar Tibbits described it in a TED talk.

[See also: 3-D printing: Healthcare's new edge]

The fourth dimension is transformation. 4D printing develops chameleonic materials whose properties shift according to external stimuli, such as pressure, moisture or temperature changes. It programs physical – or biological – materials that change shape on their own.

Tibbits, who’s pioneering the technology alongside 3D printing firms Stratasys and Autodesk, said in that TED talk that 4D printing "will allow us to print objects that then reshape themselves or self-assemble over time.”

At its core, he explained, self-assembly means  “a process by which disordered parts build an ordered structure through only local interaction.”

For example said Tibbits, who works in MIT's Department of Architecture and is director of its Self-Assembly Lab, this might include, “a printed cube that folds before your eyes, or a printed pipe able to sense the need to expand or contract."

In the coming years, this technology could have a disruptive effect on healthcare and other industries, according to the Frost & Sullivan study, impacting everything from artificial organs to smart sensors to nano technology.

"4D printing, an extension of three-dimensional printing, is superior to conventional manufacturing techniques in terms of performance, efficiency and quality, and can create new products with increased capabilities," said Frost & Sullivan analyst Jithendranath Rabindranath, in a press statement.

"Unlike conventional manufacturing techniques, it facilitates self-assembly of materials required to manufacture parts and products, thereby speeding up the process and reducing the need for labor," he added.

As Smithsonian magazine put it earlier this year:

"With a 3D printer, an operator plugs in a virtual blueprint for an object, which the printer uses to construct the final product layer by layer. To make something 4D, though, Tibbits feeds the printer a precise geometric code based on the object's own angles and dimensions but also measurements that dictate how it should change shape when confronted with outside forces such as water, movement or a change in temperature."

Still, the technology is a good way off from commercialization, and there's plenty of work ahead for it start making inroads in the market. Most applications are seen coming several years out, between 2017 and 2019, according to Frost & Sullivan's analysis.

The report points out that rapid prototyping technology hasn't yet been widely tested for large-scale applications and physical object manufacturing, so in many ways the validity of 4D printing technology remains pretty theoretical.

In industries such as healthcare, "commercialization of products manufactured using 4D printing technology … might take longer due to the stringent regulatory or performance standards in these sectors," the report notes.

Cost, of course, is another big hurdle to 4D adoption, at least in the early going, according to Frost & Sullivan, which notes that even when companies are willing to invest, product prices tend to be high in order to recoup cost and maintain profitability on still-small production.

Nonetheless, says Rabindranath, "after a few years of mass commercialization, the cost of employing 4D 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."

In the meantime, the use cases are only limited by how much one can dream. Consider the following boon to consumer-focus wellness, one that makes a mere Fitbit seem stone-age by comparison: As Tibbits told Smithsonian, 4D-printed footwear could “adapt to being running shoes. If I play basketball, they adapt to support my ankles more.

“If I go on grass, they should grow cleats or become waterproof if it’s raining. It’s not like the shoe would understand that you’re playing basketball, of course, but it can tell what kind of energy or what type of forces are being applied by your foot.  It could transform based on pressure.  Or it could be moisture or temperature change.”

From DNA to drug delivery systems, he said, 4D printing – “like robotics, without wires and motors,” – could be poised to radically transform the way things are done and made in this world: “complex thing, made of complex parts that come together in complex ways.”

Instead, said Tibbits, it represented a fundamental “reinventing (of) how things come together, from the nano scale to the human scale.”

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