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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. In the future, it may be possible to envision a time when products created with 4D printing can adapt and adjust to their surroundings, in addition to being customized to fulfill user needs.
While the technology itself is complex, it can be explained relatively simply. An object is built additively (that is, 3D printed) by using a variety of materials with different properties: some remain rigid, and others expand or change in response to external stimuli. In our pipe example, materials that expand could be used in joints, for example, while rigid materials are used elsewhere — allowing the pipe to bend and fold, depending on conditions.
While 4D printing is relatively new, the smart materials underpinning the technology have been around for several decades and can be found in items like contact lenses, drug delivery systems, and smart clothing. It is only recently, however, that advancements in 3D printing technology — such as the ability to print objects comprised of multiple materials — have made 4D applications seem possible.
How Organizations Can Use 4D Printing Across Their Value Chains
4D printing has many potential applications throughout the organization, and its potential can be relevant across the value chain. For example, the properties of self-assembly and self-healing products can theoretically open up innovative opportunities in product design and development, create value in reductions to operations and maintenance costs, help to drive more efficient supply chains, and even eventually lead to strategic customer engagement. We can explore each to better understand the possibilities:
Innovations in product design and development. For designers, it can be challenging to anticipate and address all environmental contingencies using traditional materials and conventional manufacturing methods. However, in the future, 4D printing could potentially be used to transform product design by making it possible to create objects that not only anticipate but respond to changes in environmental conditions. Already, we’re seeing a few initial research and development applications: 4D printing has been used to test pneumatic flaps on airplane engines that open and close automatically to control airflow, while researchers have also used hydrogels to create 4D-printed water valves that close in response to liquid temperature. Such design improvements can potentially help designers reduce motion drag and improve fuel efficiency (in the case of the airplane) and improve functionality (in the case of the valve), which are key considerations for performance and cost savings.
The use of organic materials in 4D printing could also lead to still other design innovations. For example, 4D-printed splints composed of organic materials have been implanted in patients to facilitate breathing. This allows them to adapt to bodily changes and dissolve in the surrounding tissues once they have served their purpose.
Reduced operations and maintenance costs. Products that can self-adjust to their environments can provide numerous operational and maintenance benefits. The aforementioned valves manufactured using hydrogel material, for example, were able to close automatically when the liquid flowing through them went above a threshold temperature, allowing for the control of water flow. 4D-printed pipes could also theoretically change their diameter according to flow volume or make other physical adaptations based on environmental criteria. In cases where normal pipes would break or crack due to increased flow, 4D-printed pipes could thus potentially adjust their size, leading to savings in maintenance, operating, and replacement costs as well.
More efficient supply chains. As it develops and evolves, 4D printing also has the potential to render supply chains more efficient. 3D printing is already used in a variety of applications, and while it provides significant value with respect to on-demand, customized production, final assembly itself still takes time. That’s where 4D printing could eventually be helpful, as it could enable self-assembly, supporting structures such as boxes, shelters, antennae, or other installations. Parts could be manufactured at a factory and later installed by activating them via environmental conditions. This capability could be particularly relevant and useful in remote or inaccessible areas, for example in disaster relief, defense applications, or space exploration.
Strategic customer service. 4D printing could even someday allow companies to add value through additional, post-sale services beyond the initial purchase of an object or product. It could do so by enabling smaller, more compact — and convenient — replacement parts and by potentially reducing repairs and replacements altogether. In the former case, condensed parts could be activated to take the desired shape as needed to replace existing parts. This capability could have profound impacts on multiple industries, specifically aerospace, automotive, and other sectors where logistics and inventory management are significant factors. In the latter case, the ability of shape-changing parts to adjust to environmental conditions could lead to a reduction in the need for repairs and replacements, leading to lower lifetime ownership costs for customers.
The Future Takes Shape
Emerging technologies have allowed businesses to speed up the innovation process, and 4D printing is one such nascent capability that could someday offer organizations significant opportunities to create new products and services at faster speeds. However, once the technology grows more mature, managers should think about how to adopt 4D printing in ways that enable them to take fuller advantage of the technology as it eventually moves beyond the R&D stage.
For example, manufacturers should consider how to ensure that 4D-printed components perform with consistency and quality. Leaders should also implement operations practices that can test mechanical strength and ensure quality control. Teams should also define important metrics with the new technology in mind, such as the acceptable time ranges for 4D-printed parts’ “transformation” processes, to ensure objects do not change or adapt too slowly to be effective in real-world conditions.
At the same time, 4D printing will likely require additional workforce skills and investments in new physical technologies. Once managers begin to explore potential applications, they will likely need to consider which capabilities they could build in-house and which processes would necessitate external expertise — whether part design, materials sciences, post-production process, validation and testing, and others.
Managers could also consider where within the organization piloting the technology would be most effective: Specific product designs where form and functionality are a concern given unpredictable environmental conditions, or specific pain points in the supply chain that are difficult to manage or inaccessible. Ultimately, however, the very characteristics that appear to make 4D printing so powerful — customization and adaptiveness — may someday evolve to allow leaders a wide range of options to tailor their use of the technology and apply it to what best suits their needs.