Scientists from Georgia Institute of Technology and the Singapore University of Technology and Design report that they have developed a powerful 4D printer that enables the creation of ‘self-assembling structures’ that can change shape after being exposed to heat and other stimuli. They say this unique technology could be used in aerospace, medicine and other industries.

The researchers presented their work at the 255th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) this week.

4D printing is an emerging technology that allows 3D-printed components to change their shape over time after exposure to heat, light, humidity and other environmental triggers. However, 4D printing remains challenging, in part because it often requires complex and time-consuming post-processing steps to mechanically program each component. In addition, many commercial printers can only print 4D structures composed of a single material.

“We are on the cusp of creating a new generation of devices that could vastly expand the practical applications for 3D and 4D printing,” said H. Jerry Qi, Ph.D., Georgia Institute of Technology.

He added: “Our prototype printer integrates many features that appear to simplify and expedite the processes used in traditional 3D printing. As a result, we can use a variety of materials to create hard and soft components at the same time, incorporate conductive wiring directly into shape-changing structures, and ultimately set the stage for the development of a host of 4D products that could reshape our world.”

Reshaping the world

Last year, Qi and his colleagues at Georgia Institute of Technology, in collaboration with scientists at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, used a composite along with a commercial printer and a heat source to create 4D objects, such as a flower that can close its petals or a star that morphs into a dome.

These objects transformed shape up to 90% faster than previously possible because the scientists incorporated the tedious mechanical programming steps directly into the 3D printing process.

Building on this work, the researchers sought to develop an all-in-one printer to address other 4D printing challenges and move the technology closer to practical application.

Four techniques, one machine

The machine they ultimately devised combines four different printing techniques, including aerosol, inkjet, direct ink write and fused deposition modeling. It can handle a multitude of stiff and elastic materials including hydrogels, silver nanoparticle-based conductive inks, liquid crystal elastomers and shape memory polymers, or SMPs. SMPs, which are the most common substances used in 4D printing, can be programmed to “remember” a shape and then transform into it when heated. With this new technology, the researchers can print higher-quality SMPs capable of making more intricate shape changes than in the past, opening the door for a multitude of functional 4D applications and designs.

The researchers can also use the printer to project a range of white, grey or black shades of light to form and cure a component into a solid. This greyscale lighting triggers a cross-linking reaction that can alter the component’s behaviour, depending on the greyscale of shade shined on it. So, for example, a brighter light shade creates a part that is harder, while a darker shade produces a softer part. As a result, these components can bend or stretch differently than other parts of the 4D structure around them.

The printer can even create electrical wiring that can be printed directly onto an antenna, sensor or other electrical device. The process relies on a direct-ink-write method to produce a line of silver nanoparticle ink. A photonic cure unit dries and coalesces the nanoparticles to form conductive wire. Then, the printer’s ink-jet component creates the plastic coating that encases the wire.

Medical applications

Currently, Qi’s team is also working with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to determine whether this new technology could print prosthetic hands for children born with malformed arms.

“Only a small group of children have this condition, so there isn’t a lot of commercial interest in it and most insurance does not cover the expense,” Qi says. “But these children have a lot of challenges in their daily lives, and we hope our new 4D printer will help them overcome some of these difficulties.”

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