News Feature | September 22, 2014

4D Printing Holds Special Potential For The Healthcare Industry

By Megan Williams, contributing writer

4D Printing In Healthcare

What Is 4D Printing?

Essentially, it’s 3D printing with a fourth dimension of chameleon-like transformation.

The next step in 3D printing involves the concept of “self-assembly.” This means that disordered printed parts are able to build themselves into an ordered structure through local interaction only, according to a TED talk by MIT research scientist, Skylar Tibbits.

Materials shift their properties in response to external stimuli, like pressure, moisture, or temperature changes. They can shift their physical or biological materials and change shape on their own. A simple example would be a printed cube that folds itself on its own, or a pipe that can sense the need to expand or contract.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, “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.”

What This Means For Healthcare

In the healthcare space, it would be most applicable in the areas of artificial organs and nano technology.

Also, while the technology is expected to emerge in other industries between 2017 and 2019, healthcare may take longer to see any applications because of regulatory and performance standards, according to a report by Frost & Sullivan.

Other applications within healthcare include tissue engineering, self-assembling human-scale biomaterials, design of nanoparticles, and nanorobots for chemotherapy. Cost would also be an issue, but it is expected to drop as the technology becomes more commonplace.

Go Deeper

Listen to Skylar Tibbits’ talk on The Emergence Of 4D Printing on YouTube, or read more on the opportunities for solutions providers around advancements in physical printing, in the BSM article  “VARs, ISVs Will Find Opportunities In 3D Printing For Healthcare.”

If you are interested in the full Frost & Sullivan report, contact Ariel Brown, associate corporate communications at or 210-247-2481.