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Researchers Develop 4D Printing Technology

Plastics Business

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have successfully added a fourth dimension to their printing technology, opening up possibilities for the creation and use of adaptive, composite materials in manufacturing, packaging and biomedical applications.

A team led by H. Jerry Qi, associate professor of mechanical engineering at CU-Boulder, and his collaborator Martin L. Dunn, of the Singapore University of Technology and Design, have developed and tested a method for 4D printing. The researchers incorporated "shape memory" polymer fibers into the composite materials used in traditional 3D printing, which resulted in the production of an object fixed in one shape that can later be changed to take on a new shape.

The 4D printing concept, which allows materials to "self-assemble" into 3D structures, was initially proposed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty member Skylar Tibbits in April of this year. Tibbits and his team combined a strand of plastic with a layer made out of "smart" material that could self-assemble in water.

The CU-Boulder teamís findings were published last month in the journal Applied Physics Letters. The paper was co-authored by Qi "Kevin" Ge, who joined MIT as a postdoctoral research associate, in September. The CU-Boulder team demonstrated that the orientation and location of the fibers within the composite determines the degree of shape memory effects like folding, curling, stretching or twisting.

The researchers also showed the ability to control those effects by heating or cooling the composite material. The technology promises new possibilities for a variety of applications. Qi said that a solar panel or similar product could be produced in a flat configuration onto which functional devices can be easily installed. It then could be changed to a compact shape for packing and shipping. After arriving at its destination, the product could be activated to form a different shape that optimizes its function.

As 3D printing technology matures with more printable materials and higher resolution at larger scales, the research should help provide a new approach to creating reversible or tunable 3D surfaces and solids in engineering, like the composite shells of complex shapes used in automobiles, aircraft and antennas.

For more information, call 720.470.9816 or visit www.colorado.edu.