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We interact with infrastructure all the time — from the pipes that bring water each morning to our shower to the roads we drive daily to work. Much of the time, it can be easy to forget that these working systems even exist. They simply work. It’s when infrastructure fails that real challenges can arise, from the physical infrastructure we depend on to the kind that underpins modern manufacturing and supply chains.
But imagine a scenario where infrastructure can adapt and respond — to use the example of water pipes, one that could adjust to fluctuations in temperature, water flow, and pressure to prevent damage. Imagine that the pipe could even heal itself once broken or burst. While still in its very early, largely R&D stages, 4D printing technology can potentially enable this type of functionality for infrastructure in the future, saving effort and costs related to business operations and parts maintenance.
The results can be potentially transformative for organizations and help them create more innovative, differentiated products and services. It’s therefore helpful to get familiar with this emerging technology and the potential it may someday hold.
The Nuts and Bolts of 4D Printing
Once a competitive differentiator, product and service customization have arguably become business imperatives. As technologies and organizational systems grow increasingly connected, sharing data and information about what is happening in the physical world, organizations have more data at their fingertips than ever before about a wide range of metrics: customer behavior, product or asset functionality, demand fluctuations, and environmental shifts (for example, in temperature, humidity, vibration, and other information dependent on where and how the product is intended to function). All of this intelligence means that supply chain leaders can make informed decisions specifically tailored to each scenario, resulting in greater efficiencies and better business outcomes.
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3D printing has helped companies use that data and information to address some of these demands, allowing them to customize product designs in ways that are difficult, if not impossible, to replicate with conventional manufacturing. Considered an extension of 3D printing, 4D printing has the potential to take customization a step further by enabling 3D-printed parts to transform their shape in response to external stimuli such as heat, light, pressure, and humidity. In practical terms, this means 4D-printed objects can theoretically react much more dynamically, rather than remaining as rigid, solid structures.