02 October 2013

4D printing will make intelligent clothes and armor that can adapt to any situation

In CNC milling, the so-called “4th axis” is rotation of either the tool or the part around the other. In additive manufacturing techniques, like 3D printing, the angle at which a material is deposited is not usually as important as what the material does once it is extruded. To take an analogy from the physics of space-time, the fourth dimension is not some hidden way to move linearly in space, but rather a degree of freedom that arises from a dimensional property somehow curled up inside any given 3D coordinate. In the exciting new field of 4D printing, that means some other physical characteristic of each material voxel has a latent potential for change.

The United States Army Research Office has awarded $855,000 to develop new 4D printing applications. The three researchers chosen are from Harvard, and the Universities of Pittsburgh and Illinois. One area where the Army Research Office hoped that this kind of technology can be applied is in gear or clothing for troops on the ground. A smart garment that can alter its color, permeability, or hardness according to need would offer many potential benefits. Camouflage, cooling, or structural protection would be achieved not by changing into new gear, but rather by changing the gear you have.

The idea is to embed smart materials that can respond to something like light, charge, or temperature, within a matrix of hydrogel that is made of more smart material. Rather than relying on active triggering of the material change by the wearer or operator, the intent is to make this change automatic — adaptive, if you will. The focus for now is on the small scale, the micro or the nano.

There are however, other ideas floating around about what 4D printing is, or should be. The concept of printing parts that then move within themselves like a developing embryo, or move as a unit altogether like a robot, is an equally valid interpretation. New techniques, like microdroplet printing, might combine both of these kinds of structural readjustments to do a little bit of everything.

None of these methods, at least in their current form, are entirely suitable for building the ultimate Iron Man-style body armor. The raw stopping power of a lightweight ceramic like boron nitride is just too hard to match with flexible materials like Kevlar. If built up from the inside-out, with alternating layers and microdomains of unique materials, a suit that provides ballistic protection might also double up as thermal or chemical protection. For now, we might realistically expect something more like a smart coating that could be applied to existing gear. However, as we become more nimble in building complex structure on the small scale, then into objects on the larger scale, the crust might become the essential component.

Now Read: 3D printing cancer drugs molecule-by-molecule, using DNA scaffolds


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