4D Printing: Self-Assemble, Self-Shape, Self-Repair

Dan Wellers and Michael Rander

4D printing, which builds objects using smart materials, could change everything.

This next-generation technology will enable companies to manufacture products that can self-assemble, reshape themselves, or otherwise react to changing conditions, revolutionizing how we design, manufacture, and interact with objects of all kinds.


The global 4D-printing market is expected to reach US$64.5 million by 2019 and increase at a 33.2% CAGR through 2025.1
The market for various programmable materials, which are the foundation of 4D printing, are expected to grow at a CAGR of 20% or more through 2025.2
MIT’s Self-Assembly Laboratory
first developed the technique in partnership with Stratasys and Autodesk, but researchers around the globe are developing new use cases.3
Current demand is strongest in the defense, aerospace, automotive, and healthcare industries.4

Programmable Materials

There is no such thing as a 4D printer; 4D printing is actually a new use for 3D printers. The real stars of the show are smart materials, enabling the printed object to alter itself long after it is made. These materials—such as hydrogels, or shape memory polymers—are programmed to stimulate the object to change its shape, function, or color, for example, when it encounters water, light, heat, or electric current.

The output? Self-flattening boxes for warehouses and logistics. Plumbing pipes that expand or contract in response to water flow. Medical implants that adjust to our bodies. Self-assembling shelters that spring into place after natural disaster. Bridges and roads that can self-heal.

The First Shapeshifters

While 4D printing is largely used for prototyping, a number of real use cases have emerged:

  • NASA’s flexible metal “space chain mail,” which could be used to shield a spacecraft from meteorites, for astronaut spacesuits, or for capturing objects on the surface of other planets5
  • A self-assembling shoe that could eliminate a complex production process involving significant labor6
  • A 4D-printed airway splint that grows with the child for infants suffering from a condition that causes their windpipes to collapse7
  • Airbus’s air inlet component, which is made of programmable carbon fiber that adjust itself automatically to control airflow used to cool the engine, removing the need for heavy mechanical control systems8

A Living Product

4D printing can exponentially expand what is achievable in prototyping, design, manufacture, and post-production adaptability and usage.

Companies will be able to produce not just a static product but one that will change and grow throughout its lifecycle. When combined with other advancing digital capabilities, including Internet of Things, AI, and robotics, the potential disruption could be even more profound.


Go to Sources


Download the executive brief 4D Printing: Self-Assemble, Self-Shape, Self-Repair.


Read the full article 4D Printing: A Shape-Shifting Revolution.


About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is the Global Lead of Digital Futures at SAP.

About Michael Rander

Michael Rander is the Global Research Director for Future of Work at SAP. He is an experienced project manager, strategic and competitive market researcher, and operations manager, as well as an avid photographer, athlete, traveler, and entrepreneur.