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From 3D to 4D: How Harvard Scientists Printed a Shape-Changing Flower

4d shape shifting printed objectIt’s already pretty incredible that we can create almost anything using a 3D printer. From spare parts to huge builds like an entire house, if we can think it, we can print it.

The downside to 3D printing, though, is that many of those products are stiff and rigid. That may be good for a replacement gear or new wrench in outer space, but not so much for an adjustable part or something that must handle different stresses.

This new realm of 3D printed objects that can readily change shape is the next stage of evolution for these versatile machines. It’s now being referred to as 4D printing, and scientists at Harvard say that they’ve mastered it. This video shows the 4D printing process in action.

Two groups from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences came together to create a truly unique “hydrogel composite structure.”

The structure resembles an orchid flower and can change shape when submerged in water. This latest creation marks a new chapter in biology-inspired engineering as well as taking 3D printing to the next level—or dimension, if you will.

“This work represents an elegant advance in programmable materials assembly, made possible by a multidisciplinary approach,” says senior author of the study Jennifer Lewis. “We have now gone beyond integrating form and function to create transformable architectures.”

According to RT, the 4D-printed orchids are programmed with precise and localized swelling, and contain tiny cellulose fibers from wood. They’re similar in function to the microstructures that enable plants to change shapes. The outcome is that the make-up of the orchid responds to water, much like a typical plant organ such as tendrils, leaves, or flowers might.

The results of this innovation are dependent on the materials used and can be tuned to be more conductive of electricity or for more biocompatibility. “We can control the curvature both discretely and continuously using our entirely tunable and programmable method,” says Elisabetta Matsumoto, a co-lead author.

As the scientists point out in the Harvard Gazette, “The new method opens up new potential applications for 4D printing technology, including smart textiles, soft electronics, biomedical devices, and tissue engineering.” Soft and versatile electronics? Now why does that sound so familiar?

These complex and versatile builds are the next stage of evolution in the 3D printing trend and we certainly can’t wait for the truly huge 4D printed builds. How about an entire house that changes shape when submerged in water? Now that would be a sight to see!

Photo credit: Harvard

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