What is 4D printing and how does it work?

4D printing: Is this the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

History Science

Clothes that adapt to weather conditions, furniture that assembles itself when taken out of the box, pipes that regulate their width according to the flow, prostheses that adapt to growth and disintegrate once they are no longer needed... These are just some of the present and future applications of 4D printing. Intelligent designs that adapt to the environment and transform over time.

Young person with 4D printer.
Young person with 4D printer.


4D printing uses 3D printers to create live three dimensional objects without wires or circuits. It does so by using intelligent materials, which can be programmed to change shape, colour or size when they receive an external stimulus.

Such is the case with hydrogel resins, active polymers or even live tissues. They are printed in 3D with a specific design that evolves over time and when in contact with humidity, light, pressure or temperature, among other factors, to achieve the intended finish.

4D printing makes it possible for an object, for example, to bend, repair, assemble or even disintegrate itself. It acquires a new shape or functionality on its own by reacting with the environment.


The forefather of this emerging technology is computer scientist Skylar Tibbits, founder and co-director of the Self-Assembly Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It was presented to the world in 2013 and could possibly be marketed in 2019, according to the 4D Printing Market Research Report- Global Forecast 2022 report.

The origins of 4D printing is in the introduction of a time factor to 3D printing. It consists of creating three-dimensional objects that adapt to the circumstances of each moment without the intervention of robots or people, only combining materials and geometry with interactions, an energy source and intelligent design, Tibbits explains.

The Self-Assembly Lab is currently experimenting with new 4D printing techniques such as Rapid Liquid Printing, which allows a large sofa to be printed in just a few minutes, and materials such as plastic, rubber or foam.


4D printing is destined to revolutionise the industry. These are some of its possible achievements:

  • Medicine and surgery

In 2015, a medical team from the University of Michigan saved the lives of three babies with respiratory problems by inserting a 4D printed implant. This polycaprolactone device, designed to fit each patient, was designed to adapt its size to the child's growth and to dissolve itself when no longer necessary.

At present, the use of 4D printing in ultrasound scans allows, for example, to know more precisely the structural and functional development of the nervous system of the foetus.

In the future, vascular endoprosthesis (stents) or other 4D parts that react to body heat and expand to adapt to the patient, may be able to be printed.

  • Clothing and footwear

4D printing allows the manufacture of clothing that adapts to the body's shape and movement. The U.S. military is testing, for example, uniforms that change colour depending on the environment, or that regulate perspiration depending on the soldier's pulse or environment temperature.

4D printed shoes will also be able to adapt to movement, impact, temperature and atmospheric pressure.

  • Aeronautics and automotive

The NASA has developed an intelligent metallic fabric with 4D printing. This fabric, which is already used for astronaut suits due to its insulating nature, could also be used to protect spacecraft and antennas against the impact of meteorites. Meanwhile Airbus is testing materials that react to heat to cool its aircraft engines.

Thanks to 4D printing, intelligent airbags can be produced in the future that can anticipate any impact and reduce the risk of injury to the driver and passengers.

In short, we are talking about an untapped technology that will revolutionise the printing and manufacturing of objects over the next few years. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is already underway.

The immediate future of 4D printing.
The immediate future of 4D printing.
See more information flecha