Can 4D Printing Be A Game Changer In Architecture?

Why adding a fourth dimension to 3D printing doesn’t mean we’ll have endless architectural possibilities.

Are you excited about 4D printing? Well, it’s about time!

I don’t mean that as an expression, it really is about time, as the fourth dimension that is bringing 3D printing to life. We only recently came to appreciate and understand the value of 3D printing for practical everyday use. We haven’t even reached the point where 3D printers are as common in homes and offices as laser printers, and yet the technology has evolved to another level.

Courtesy of MIT

Think of 4D printing as printed three-dimensional objects which can move and change characteristics over time. Shape shifting polymer fibres are incorporated into the composite materials used in 3D printing, as a way to program the resultant material. Once complete, the 4D printed materials and objects require stimuli to trigger the movement, which can be magnets, vibrations, heat, light, electricity, pneumatics, or moisture.

This is beyond robotics. It’s about predictive, strategic and adaptive materials that assemble themselves, which would be a massive advantage for architecture. However, I have mixed feelings about 4D printing. It is lines of code, which reigned in the digital realm, manifesting in the physical realm. Not hardware nor software, but new type of physical-ware. It is both exciting and creepy.

4d diagram. Source_microfabricator

4d diagram. Microfabricator

In extreme environments, such as in deserts and intensively cold climates, or heavily mountainous topographies where construction would be challenging, 4D printing will be very useful. Also, for large-scale infrastructure projects where many cranes and labourers might be required, 4D printing would improve construction efficiency.

The Self-Assembly Lab at MIT is at the forefront of 4D printed designs. Along with Stratasys, a 3D printing company that developed a 4D printer and a material that could expand in water, the Self-Assembly Lab have been creating some interesting moveable objects.

The Autodesk Research Programmable Matter lab developed a software that MIT use to design complex objects for 4D printing. 

The Lab is also working with engineering firm GEOSyntec to develop pipes consisting of programmable material designed to create their own water pressure. The value that responsive functionality would bring to the built environment, where the material is designing itself according to circumstances, is undeniable.

Stratasys_MIT Folding_Combined

What’s exciting are the possibilities of programmable materials, spaces and structures coming together or changing form when required. Just imagine the geometric configuration which could be achieved. For example, a roof changing form to facilitate drainage depending on the accumulation of precipitation. And walls that slightly increase in thickness during the winter to elevate insulation values. Or ventilation ducts that transform depending on the heating or cooling required during certain seasons. Just imagine buildings that change form at their corners in heavy winds to protect the structure. Or a wall that heals itself in real time during a hail storm.

4D Printing Saddle_COMBINED5

In terms of energy consumption, 4D printing would dramatically decrease the energy required for construction. For example, consider the energy required to pour concrete walls for a large commercial building. A concrete plant consumes an abundance of energy to turn cement, aggregate, admixtures and water into concrete. Then, a collection of trucks have to drive back and worth between the construction site and the plant, sometimes stuck in traffic. If the walls were built of a stimuli-responsive 4D printed material that built itself when external triggers were introduced, all of the aforementioned energy consumption would be replaced by the triggers.

Where I believe things get uncomfortable, specifically with respect to architecture, is when our desires and what has been programmed collide. For example, how will we negotiate those moments when a programmable space has been triggered to change form because of the orientation of the sun, but for some reason we don’t want that change to take place? Will there be a way to hack the space, tell it to disobey the sun and listen to the adults in the room?

Or what if you live in a house covered in a 4D printed surface that changed colours during a rainstorm, to a beautiful colour that you really like better than the original colour. When the storm stops, and the trigger is gone, how will you keep the material from reverting back to its original colour?

Then there’s also issues of 4D printed structures. How do you ensure the integrity of a transforming structure, during and after the operation? Or will it be like a drawbridge, where you must get off before it is activated for safety purposes? Also, what about the gradual weakness of the structure after 100 transformations? Or after 1000? Will it stay strong and resilient? These, and many more questions, still need to be answered before we can say that 4D printing will be a game changer in architecture.

This is why we won’t have endless architectural possibilities, even though the profession would benefit from the increase in flexibility and lightness. The competitive advantage  and benefits will be for construction companies and building product manufacturers, where a reduction in production expenses is desired. Though unless these companies are willing to invest in the research and development required, 4D printing will never truly alter the way buildings are constructed. It will be immediately useful for temporary structures like tents, or lighter structures that need to be assembled quickly.

For 4D printing to be a game changer in architecture, it may require disruption from outside the AEC industry. Consider a world where building materials are no longer manufactured, but programmed by companies like Autodesk, Dassault Systems, Hewlett-Packard, 3D Systems and Stratasys.

Stratasys_Surface Cube_Combined


WOOD Elephant

For race cars going around a corner on track, the use of 4D printing will be a winning strategy. Airplanes will use it for fuel efficiency and aerodynamics. The military will use it to create uniforms that change camouflage based on surroundings.  Right now, 4D printing is embryonic and it won’t be commercialised until around 2019. Even then, military and aerospace will make up most of the 4D printing market.

There will be some who will be concerned that 4D printing will make more jobs obsolete. Ironically, even robots would be concerned if they were self-aware. Others will say new jobs will be available for humans to do. As exciting as 4D printing is, I believe that we should be concerned, because it won’t take as many people to program a material as is took to assemble and install it.

Will 4D printing ever change how architecture is built? Only in incremental ways and it will take time.

Words: Phil Roberts

One Response to “Can 4D Printing Be A Game Changer In Architecture?”

  1. Thanks very much for the article Phil.

    On the collision of user experience and programmable materials, this would seem to have much in common with current UX challenges for IoT, which Claire Rowland explains much better than I could here:

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