3D printing has enticed many technology enthusiasts and now 4D printing may wow them with shape-shifting materials.

3D printing is slowly but steadily gaining popularity in the technology industry. 3D printing technology uses a wide array of materials such as glass, metal, ceramic and plastic to create many objects. However, some printers also utilize unusual materials such as living cells and chocolates. 3D printing devices layers or deposits materials to create objects similar to ordinary printers that layers ink to print on paper.

Dan Raviv, a mathematician at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the lead author of the study, suggests that 3D technology has currently gained a lot of popularity and many organizations are using 3D printers to create 3D models. Moreover, the price of 3D printers has been received significantly and has become affordable to be used in homes as well. MakerBot is one of the most popular 3D printer makers and many 3D printers are available for about $1,000.

"Knowing you can print almost anything, not just 2D paper, opens a window to unlimited opportunities, where toys, household appliances and tools can be ordered online and manufactured in our living rooms," says Raviv.

4D printing is a step ahead of 3D printing and involves printing objects that can change shape even after they have been printed.

"The most exciting part is the numerous applications that can emerge from this work," says Raviv. "This is not just a cool project or an interesting solution, but something that can change the lives of many."

The researchers of the study explain that they printed a 3D structure with the help of two materials that had dissimilar properties. One of the materials was stiff plastic, which stayed rigid and the other material was actually water absorbent that could increase in volume once immersed in water. A company called Stratasys, based in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, developed the formula of the materials. The formula of the water-absorbent material is a secret that the company did not reveal.

The scientists reveal that they printed a square grid, which measured around 15 inches, or 38 centimeters, per side. When this grid was submerged in water, the water-absorbent material acted like joints and had the ability to change shapes.

Raviv suggests that they can use 4D printing for many applications such as appliances that could adapt to change in heat. 4D printing can help companies to create products used for children that can react to temperature or humidity. 4D printed objects can also be used to create objects that are implanted in human bodies.

Raviv also suggests that 4D printing is just at its nascent stage and needs a lot of research before it can be used commercially.

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