The Biggest Threat to 3-D Printing Technology

By Josh Grasmick, The Daily Reckoning Dec 13, 2013, 2:28 PM 

You know how 3-D printing is a revolution that’s poised to forever change how we make things across the globe. It’s one technology that could spell the end of everything.

But do you know about 4-D printing?

4-D printing is 3-D printing with “smart” ink… that evolves over one more dimension: time.

“The idea behind 4-D printing is that you take multimaterial 3-D printing… and you add a new capability, which is transformation.”

“Smart ink” is basically different materials combined together that adapt to their environment. They could change shape or appearance in response to heat, light, air, fluid or pressure. How it happens depends on their smaller parts and how they’re programmed. It other words, 4-D printing is not about the tech that manipulates materials, but rather, the materials that manipulate themselves.

Like a seed following the instructions of its DNA, we can 3-D print materials that self-assemble into the fourth dimension. They can camouflage themselves with “skins” that “heal” or coatings that self-repair. Submarines could cloak themselves based on the water they passed through. Airplane wings could change like metal origami based on where they fly and what they carry.

Right now, 4-D printing is in its experimental phase, but some companies have already shown interest. The U.S. Army Research Office awarded $855,000 in 2013 to three universities to make advances in 4-D printing. The most well-known however project, however, is going on at MIT.

“The idea behind 4-D printing,” says director of MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab Skylar Tibbits, “is that you take multimaterial 3-D printing… and you add a new capability, which is transformation. Part of my work had been writing code to digitally design things. If we can write code to operate a machine, why can’t we also use code to get things to assemble themselves?”

Tibbits believes materials could contain the “software” needed for self-assembly, saving time and money. The materials would mimic the movements of machine-assembled devices driven by actuators, motors and sensors. In an interview with Scientific American, he uses the example of a thermostat, one that’s not digital:

If you pull off the cover of that thermostat, there’s a coil with a bimetallic strip. You have two metals sandwiched together with different expansion rates. When subtle temperature changes happen, it turns the coil to the left or right. That turns a dial to either increase or reduce heat. There’s no motor or traditional sensor. It’s just a material that’s expanding and contracting and turning a dial.

Already, he’s tested 4-D printing on a fairly large scale, printing a 50-foot strand material and then placing it in a pool. The angles and orientation of the black, rigid plastic changed over time as it was submerged. Attached to this strand was a white plastic that expanded 150%, causing it to fold.

But despite all of the excitement, Tibbits admits that 4-D printing is still in the early states, and that he’s just one research lab: “Our job is to push knowledge and discover new things. We don’t develop new products; We rely on industry for that. The development of new 4-D printing applications depends on strong collaboration with businesses interested in pursuing this technology.” So what companies are exploring these possibilities?

Stratasys (NASDAQ: SSYS) is ahead in the large-scale and manufacturing space. This 3-D printing market leader is already investing in 4-D. 4-D printing is much easier with a printer that uses multiple kinds of ink such as the Stratasys Connex, which Tibbits himself uses.

That system spits out droplets of [photopolymer] materials like an inkjet printer and cures them with UV light. The Stratasys printer deposits two different materials at the same time. There could be a way to print 4-D objects using a machine that works with one material, but then you would rely a lot more on the geometry designed into that material.

Organovo Holdings Inc. (NYSE: ONVO) is a unique example of another company that could use 4-D printing. It is already the only public company that does bioprinting. Ultimately, science will have to learn its lessons on how to print smarter materials by mimicking biology. Their big goal is to print human tissues, such as a liver planned for 2014.

ExOne Co. (NASDAQ: XONE) develops, manufactures and sells 3-D printing machines. They specialize in the aerospace, automotive and energy sectors, where Tibbits sees immediate apps.

3D Systems Corp. (NYSE: DDD) is another player.

And what do you know? Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ) is back in the game, according to rumors that they have plans to enter the 3-D market within the year. Do they have what it takes to make the double leap into 4-D? We don’t know, but you should keep it on the radar.

Finally, there’s Autodesk (NASDAQ: ADSK), the company whose products Tibbits uses for design tools and its Project Cyborg software.

Those at his Self-Assembly Lab believe the tech is powerful enough to disrupt “biology, material science, software, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, the arts and even space exploration.” He believes two segments hold the most promise in the near term: extreme environments and large-scale infrastructure. Space, where oxygen lacks and temperatures freeze, is one example. Underground is one more.

Harsh environments like outer space would, indeed, be made more accommodating. And with that, let’s check out my personal favorite space where a more immediate, more practical application is: underground.

It’s time to rescue the most vital resource on the planet: water.

We take water for granted all the time. About 60% of your body is made up of it.

You can survive three weeks without food.

But without water? Try three days. We don’t recommend it…

Throughout history, the great civilizations understood its value: Egypt, with its pyramids by the Nile, and Rome, with its monumental aqueducts. But here in the U.S., our modern-day empire is in serious trouble. Many of the big water systems were built not long after WWII. In fact, 30% of water pipes are 40-80 years old. 10% are older.

That’s why if you listen closely, dear reader, you may be able to hear it…

Water mains breaking around the country every two minutes — 700 a day, on average.

A few months ago around our Baltimore office, the city’s main street was flowing like a river. Still, that was nothing compared with what happened on the Potomac. A pipe erupted so fiercely helicopters had to be called in to rescue people before they drowned.

It’s the same everywhere else. In Philadelphia, cars and homes have been flooded. On the West Coast, Los Angeles’ famous Ventura Boulevard has been swamped.

When something like that happens, you tend to be asked by local officials to stop watering your lawn and washing your car. Cut back on using toilets, they recommend. Same with dishwashers and washing machines. The fire departments need all they can get in case chaos breaks out. But it becomes more than an inconvenience when it gets really bad. Even worse than property loss, bacteria and viruses can enter the greater water supply through broken pipes. The 2008 salmonella outbreak that sickened over 250 people in Alamosa, Colo., is a small example.

In fact, the nation’s drinking water system is so troubled the American Society of Civil Engineers gave it a grade of D-plus in its 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.

“You can’t have jobs, you can’t have businesses, homes, you can’t have hotels, homes, if this infrastructure isn’t in place,” says Eric Goldstein of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

And guess where action needs to be taken most? I’ll give you a clue: It also has among the highest crime rates — official and unofficial.

Washington, D.C.’s, average pipe is 77 years old. In the wake of the Great Recession, funds dried up to fix the water problem. Some $10 billion were allocated from the stimulus package. But according to CNN, the funds needed over the next 20 years are $334.8 billion. The more we wait, the worse it gets. So much for the government taking care of the public’s single most basic service: drinking water…

Fortunately, our friend at MIT, Mr. Tibbits, has shown the potential of 4-D printing as a solution. Tibbits is working more than a tad bit with a Boston company called Geosyntec to develop a new paradigm in water infrastructure. Rather than use fixed-capacity water pipes, they’re experimenting with nanoscale adaptive materials built from the environment. The best 4-D printing tech is based on the work nature has already spent billions of years producing. 4-D printing with adaptive pipes to correct our water piping reminds me a lot of how human veins expand and contract to accommodate blood flow. The 4-D printing solution is similar.

“Imagine if water pipes could expand or contract to change capacity or change flow rate,” Tibbits said in a recent TED talk. “Or maybe [they] undulate like peristaltics to move the water themselves,” he said. “This isn’t expensive pumps or valves,” he continues. “This is a completely programmable and adaptive pipe on its own.” This is, of course, only the beginning. “Manufacturing could be more like growing,” he said in a BBC interview in July, 2013. “Maybe the construction sites in the future, we play Beethoven and structures build themselves.”

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