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What You Should Know About the Transformative Potential of 4D Printing

Four-dimensional printing is a brand-new technology that’s still under development, but it may have a transformative potential for industries such as aviation, construction, and—pursuant to this article—the energy sector. Four-dimensional printing provides the ability to self-assemble and even shapeshift objects based on environmental stimuli such as light and temperature.

This new technology combines shape-memory alloy—which in this case is Nitinol, a nickel and titanium alloy that can return to a preconfigured shape after being deformed—and 3D print space. These two things combined may have important ramifications for resource-based industries as well as other industries.

That’s why I think it’s important to be aware of what 4D printing is and the history behind it. To understand 4D, printing, let’s starting with 2D printing, which is a flat layer that’s two-dimensional—in other words, simply putting ink on paper. Then came 3D printing, which meant that we were able to create three-dimensional objects that didn’t only have length and breadth but also depth. This is done through a process of additive manufacturing whereby layers of material are added at an incremental pace with a specified print path.

The addition of 4D printing factors in the timing of the printed object. In other words, an object printed using 3D materials with the ability to change shape over time while also being affected by environmental stimuli.

Four-dimensional objects are printed just like 3D objects; however, instead of using regular materials, they use “smart materials” that are similar to the aforementioned shape-memory alloys that have been used in the past. These alloys have the ability, as their name indicates, to change shape and size when triggered by external stimuli.

This technology was born in an MIT Self-Assembly Lab project that focused on the invention of programmable material technology and the invention of self-assembly. The term “4D printed” is commonly credited to Skylar Tebbits.

Now that we know the basics of this evolving technology, it’s time to answer the million-dollar question: why is this important for the energy industry at large?It’s important because 4D technology can be used to create dynamic oil pipelines as well as other pipelines meant to carry fluid. If they’re made with 4D printing, these pipelines would have the ability to change diameter according to the flow rate and demand.

Four-dimensional printing would also allow for the creation of pipes that could heal themselves automatically and that could also change shape to deal with leaks. Additionally, 4D printing facilitates the creation of valves that can automatically open and close in response to temperature or pressure changes.

This incredible technology could also be used to create pneumatic flaps (for engines that can open and close to control airflow); self-assembling components or structures for oil rigs; bridges and buildings; plants and vegetation; and spare parts that are more compact and easier to ship.

Overall, the applications of 4D printing and the transformative power these applications have is tremendous. This new technology, which is still being developed, may be worth the investment precisely because it has the power to make the energy industry (and many others) more effective and efficient—not to mention 4D-printed objects will save a cavalcade of industries a lot of money in the long run!

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