Keith Fitz-Gerald: After more than 30 years in the markets, I’ve seen all kinds of new technologies that are supposed to change the world. Most are pumped by little-known companies with overly hyped marketing, aggressive underwriters, 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.