Jan 18, 2016 | By Alec

While 3D printing is especially interesting to industrial users for being able to create very unusual geometries, a new plastic polymer developed by a research team from East China’s Zhejiang University is even more fascinating for the shapes it takes after 3D printing. Essentially, they have created a 4D printing material, a plastic that can be 3D printed but has inherent properties that allow it to take different shapes under certain other conditions. This new material is perhaps the most functional 4D printing material yet, as it can be ‘programmed’ with different preset shapes and can shift from one to the other under certain conditions, such as temperature changes.

This fascinating innovation was developed by a research team from East China’s Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, and has just been published in Science Advances, an online journal from AAAS, the publisher of Science magazine. The team’s senior researcher Tao Xie explained that the material opens the way for a wide variety of extremely unusual 3D prints. “This allows you to produce permanent shapes that are extremely complicated,” he told The Wall Street Journal, adding that it opens the way for complex applications in a variety of industries, including the biomedical and aerospace sectors.

To demonstrate this unusual material, the research team shared the clip below. In it, you can see a small sheet of this new polymer that has been programmed with a sequence of predetermined shapes through a process of repeated heating. Dunked into water heated to 60 degrees Celsius, the pre-determined shapes spring back into life, forming a paper crane reminiscent of origami. As they explain, their repeated heating process enables them to program the material with different shapes, and can even add new ones to the polymer’s ‘memory’ at a later date without sacrificing others. This, they say, makes it perfect for designing parts that cannot be realized through milling or by molds. Most importantly, the cheap material is easily 3D printed.

Of course, some shape-shifting materials have been developed before, which can shift between an original form and a temporary shape when exposed to heat, light, magnetism and so on. However, this is the first material that can be ‘programmed’ with different shapes that add to a new permanent form that is more than any of its individual shapes. It is effectively blurring the line between materials and mechanics. “The method revealed in this study allows numerous cycles of manipulation,” said Dr. Xie. “Our new study shows that you can access a variety of much more complicated permanent shapes. This opens up possibilities.”

While it is still largely a laboratory novelty, the researchers are rightly already thinking about a number of potential applications. Among its realistic options are flexible medical sensors that change in response to a wearer’s temperature, and even solar panels that unfurl when warmed by sunlight. Perhaps more far off but definitely in the picture are shape shifting tools and robots. "It can be used to make veins or heart brackets or on surgical equipment that can get rid of blood clot thrombosis," the paper’s first author Zhao Qian speculated. Could this be the future of 3D printed tools?



Posted in 3D Printing Materials



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Ben Roberts wrote at 1/19/2016 11:20:20 AM:

This is a "laboratory novelty" now but so was Stainless Steel :-)

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