What is 4D Printing?

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Updated February 3, 2023

If you are new to the world of physical printing, you may wonder what exactly is 4D printing. Some of the best printers might be 3D printers, but are 4D printers actually a thing? Yes! In this case, a 4D-printed item is something that has been 3D printed but can change shape over time. So what exactly is 4D printing, and what are some advantages to adopting the hobby? Keep reading to find out.


  • Where 3D printers create three-dimensional objects, 4D printers create four-dimensional objects, with the fourth dimension referring to time.
  • These models use smart materials and transform and shift over time to suit the needs of the creator or integrated object as originally envisioned by MIT’s self-assembly lab and Skylar Tibbits.
  • This allows users to make large items that exceed the limitations of the print bed, as flexible materials will allow objects to bend and return to their original shape. There are many potential applications for these shape memory polymers.

What is 4D Printing Exactly?

Wait, a whole new dimension? You better believe it. In this case, the fourth dimension refers to time, but that does not mean that printed objects time travel or anything like that. 4D-printed objects simply change shape over time to meet certain use requirements. So if a 3D model shifts over time to accommodate another object or a preferred use case scenario, it is called a 4D object by some in the industry.

Insider Tip

This is developing technology, so the 4D printing applications of tomorrow are likely very different than those of today.

Before learning about 4D printing, though, it is helpful to understand what is 3D printing. A 3D printer uses resin or filament to build models; if you are learning what 3D printer resin is made of. These objects are sourced via design documents if you are wondering what file types 3D printers use. Some printers use slicer software to ensure an even print if you are learning what a slicer is in 3D printing.

What are 4D Printers Used For?

There are many off-the-beaten-path uses for 4D objects, and it must be stated again that 3D printers can create 4D objects so long as it meets the requirement of changing over time to meet the needs of a specific object. It is also worth noting that 4D printing is an extremely new process, so only industrial printers can typically handle these tasks.

Self-Repairing Systems

If materials and objects change over time, that makes them excellent options for self-repairing systems. These items have already found use in pipes and other sensitive areas, working to repair the systems automatically. This is still being studied, however, so don’t expect any self-repairing appliances to show up on the doorstep tomorrow.

STAT: 4D printing is the process through which a 3D printed object transforms itself into another structure over the influence of external energy input as temperature, light, or other environmental stimuli. (source)

Larger Objects

Because 4D materials shift and transform, that makes them ideal for building larger objects. In other words, the size of the object is not automatically determined by the print bed, as it can bend, twist, and extend once printed. A common example is a flat panel that transforms into a chair.

4D Printers FAQs

Can you start 4D printing?

You would need advanced printers and smart materials that shift and return to their original shape. These products are not yet available to average consumers.

Where is 4D printing used?

For now, 4D printing is used in academic settings and a small number of industrial settings. In other words, 3D printing technologies and the 3D printing process still hold a large edge.

Who invented 4D printing?

Using smart materials that shift and return to their original shape is a concept developed by MIT and should be useful in many future applications, such as biomedical applications.
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