and little more than vaporware. To say I’m jaded would be an understatement.
But I ran across something recently that positively made my mouth drop.
We already know about 3D printing. It’s all the rage right now, because you can buy a printer for a few thousand bucks and cook up whatever your computer can plot.
But 4D printing?
I don’t know whether to be terrified or excited as all hell about this.
Probably a little of both…
“Machines that Assemble Themselves”
3D printing, itself a fairly new technology, has quickly found a host of different applications, ranging from the fun, to the artistic, to the highly practical. Websites like Thingiverse.com and Shapeways.com have sprung up, with collaborators contributing all sorts of interesting stuff. So far we’ve seen plastic toys, parts, and some utility tools.
Companies are well on their way to creating 3D applications for a variety of industries, including consumer products, aerospace, architecture, and manufacturing. Practical uses include concept modeling and functional prototyping.
Some more aggressive individuals are already pushing the limits of this technology to make firearms, which are obviously highly controversial. There are also a number of really innovative biotech firms making – for lack of a better term – “living lattice” to replace ears and noses using tissue that’s effectively grown around a printable 3D structure.
4D printing is the kind of stuff that Skynet – the self-aware computer at the center of the famous Terminator franchise – would recognize.
Professor Anna Balazs, the Robert v.d. Luft Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering, describes 4D as “adaptive, biomimetic composites that reprogram their shape, properties or functionality on demand based upon external stimuli.”
In plain English, she’s talking about camouflage that changes based on its surroundings. Self-adaptive coatings that immediately heal inanimate objects or protect people when the material detects a threat. Submarines that hide based on the water they’re traveling through. Airplanes that can change themselves based on what they’re carrying and where they’re flying.
Or, machines that assemble themselves and manufacturing that can take a pile of parts without human intervention and transform them into everything from bridges to beer bottles.
Imagine, for example, the Hoover Dam building itself or the Golden Gate Bridge coming to fruition without a single human laborer lifting so much as a rivet.
Non-military uses could include protective paint that immediately erases graffiti as Hollywood envisioned in the Sylvester Stallone film, Demolition Man.
The potential medical uses are simply mind-boggling. Imagine what doctors could do with implantable materials that alter based on a heart patient’s needs or a burn victim’s healing process. If they can alter materials on their own, integrating that with living tissue is not far away.
And the military, naturally, is exceptionally interested, judging from the $855,000 joint research contract the U.S. Army Research Office recently awarded to Harvard University, the University of Illinois, and the University of Pittsburgh. Bear in mind, this is on top of the tens of millions they’ve already spent on nanotechnology where self-assembly already exists.
To date, 4D printing is confined to some neat, “gee-whiz!” stuff, like a long strand of material that when exposed to water transforms itself into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s moniker, MIT.
The real magic – and the real money – is going to come from the commercialization of whatever scientists develop in the next few years. It will eliminate the brute-force manufacturing techniques of today and enable an entirely new class of companies. In the process, it will change the role of labor and the consumption of energy on a truly global scale.
What’s most interesting to me, though, is that we’re talking about self-intelligent materials that are able to change shape, change properties, and even compute outside the silicon constraints we live with today.
How to Invest in 4D Printing
According to MIT computer scientist Skylar Tibbits, who heads the institution’s self-assembly technologies lab, there are two segments holding the most immediate-term potential: extreme environments and large-scale infrastructure.
Take space, which is an obviously extreme environment, for example. The lack of oxygen is an obvious labor constraint. Temperature ranges are significant and radiation is a very real problem. There would be a clear advantage to materials that are able to assemble and reconfigure themselves as needed.
Large-scale infrastructure is at the opposite end of the spectrum. The challenges there are complexity and cost. Self-adaptive materials could overcome current technological and material limitations like size and strength. Imagine, as he notes, water pipes that adapt themselves to flow or even push fluid along by constricting. There would be no valves or costly pumps needed.
Right now the choices are pretty limited – but don’t let that stop you if your mind is running in overdrive right now, like mine is.
In the large-scale and manufacturing space, I like Stratasys Ltd. (NASDAQ:SSYS). It’s already a leader in 3D printing and is investing heavily in the new materials that will make 4D possible. The company trades at $109 and has a $4.29 billion market cap. The latest data reflect earnings of -0.55 per share, but that may be misleading if the company really taps the potential I believe 4D represents.
In the 4D medical world, Organovo Holdings Inc. (NYSE MKT: ONVO) appears to be off to a good start. They’ve got a number of bioprinting projects centered around functional human tissue, including a liver product that’s planned for 2014. I believe the company will quickly branch into tumor modeling, transplantation, and pharma research.
There’s also the ExOne Co. (NASDAQ:XONE). It develops, manufactures, and sells 3D printing machines around the world with an emphasis in the aerospace, automotive, and energy sectors that Tibbets called out as immediate beneficiaries.
3D Systems Corp. (NYSE:DDD) is another player but one that is very expensive considering its PE is 134 as I write this. It’s also a growing short magnet, meaning that momentum traders seem to be assembling increasingly bearish positions. According to Yahoo!Finance, for example, the AdvisorShares Ranger Equity Bear ETF (NYSERCA:HDGE) holds a 1% position. Also according to Yahoo!Finance, 32.5% of float is sold short as of Sept. 30, which is significant considering that 65.7% are institutions or insiders.
And finally, there’s good ol’ Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ). Rumors are flying that the company is going to enter the 3D printing market next year. While this may be great for 3D consumers and print fanatics, I have a hard time envisioning the company making the jump to 4D. Still, the 2.5% dividend may be compelling enough to justify playing around the edges here.
Now if only I could figure out a way to print money like Bernanke has.
Perhaps he already has a 4D printer, though, judging from the amount of self-assembled hot air in Washington at the moment.
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