Subscribe to our newsletter to receive the latest news and events from TWI:

Subscribe >
Skip to content

What is 4D Printing? (Everything You Need to Know)


In recent years, 3D printing processes have revolutionised the manufacturing industry, allowing people to create objects with complex shapes and structures. But what if we could take this technology one step further and create objects that can change shape and functionality on their own? This is the idea behind 4D printing, an emerging technology that adds a fourth dimension to the printing process. In this FAQ article, we will discuss everything you need to know about 4D printing, its applications, and how it compares to 3D printing.


Click the links below to skip to the section in the guide:

What Is 4D Printing?

4D printing is an advanced form of additive manufacturing that involves creating objects with smart materials that can transform their shape and properties over time. The "fourth dimension" in 4D printing refers to the ability of the printed object to change its shape or functionality in response to external stimuli, such as temperature, light, or moisture. This technology is built upon the foundation of 3D printing, but takes it one step further by incorporating smart materials and responsive designs.

What Is 4D Printing Used For?

While still a relatively new technique, 4D printing has numerous potential applications that span a range of different industries, including:

1. Soft robotics:

4D printing allows for the creation of ‘soft robots’ with flexible bodies that can adapt to their environment and perform tasks that traditional robots cannot

2. Medical implants:

4D printed objects can be customised to respond to the specific needs of individual patients, such as implants that change shape to promote bone growth or drug release

3. Aerospace engineering:

4D printing can be used to create aircraft components that are capable of changing shape during flight in order to optimise performance and reduce fuel consumption

4. Fashion and apparel:

4D printed garments could adapt to the wearer's body shape, environmental conditions, or even change colour and pattern on demand

5. Infrastructure and construction:

4D printing technology could enable the creation of self-assembling structures or materials that are able to repair themselves when damaged

How Does 4D Printing Work?

The 4D printing process is similar to that used with 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing). The process involves three main steps:

1. Designing the 3D shape:

The first step in 4D printing is designing the object's 3D shape, just like in traditional 3D printing. This is typically done using computer-aided design (CAD) software

2. Selecting the smart material:

Once the object’s overall shape has been designed, the next step is choosing the appropriate smart or responsive material for the object. This material could be a shape memory polymer, renewable soybean oil, or any other material that can change its properties in response to external stimuli

3. Printing the object layer by layer:

Finally, the object is printed using an additive manufacturing process, such as fused deposition modelling (FDM) or selective laser sintering (SLS). Whichever process is used for the manufacture, the smart material is deposited layer by layer, gradually building up the final 3D shape of the object. This is the same process that is used with existing 3D printers

Once the object is printed, it can go into service, ready to undertake its programmed shape transformation or other in-service modifications when exposed to the appropriate external stimulus.

Advantages of 4D Printing

There are several advantages to be realised with 4D printing, including:

  • Greater customisation: 4D printing allows for the creation of objects with unique properties that are tailored to specific applications or user needs
  • Increased efficiency: Objects that can change shape or functionality on their own can lead to more efficient systems, such as self-assembling structures or adaptive aerospace components
  • Reduced material waste: 4D printed objects can potentially repair themselves or adapt to changing conditions, reducing the need for replacement parts and lowering material waste
  • Sustainability: Some 4D printing materials, such as renewable soybean oil, are eco-friendly and contribute to a more sustainable manufacturing process

Disadvantages of 4D Printing

Despite its potential benefits, 4D printing also has some drawbacks:

  • Complexity: Designing and manufacturing 4D printed objects can be more complex than traditional 3D printing, requiring advanced knowledge of materials science and engineering
  • Cost: The use of smart materials and specialised printing processes can make 4D printing more expensive than traditional 3D printing
  • Limited material options: The range of smart materials suitable for 4D printing is currently limited, restricting the scope of potential applications at the moment

4D Printing vs 3D Printing

The primary difference between 4D and 3D printing is the use of smart materials in 4D printing, which allows for the creation of objects capable of transforming shape and adapting to their environment. This added functionality can lead to increased efficiency and customisation, but may also result in higher costs and complexity. The following table highlights the main differences between 3D and 4D printing, including materials, functionality, complexity, cost, customisation and sustainability.

4D vs. 3D Printing Comparison Table


3D Printing

4D Printing


Wide range of plastics, metals, and ceramics

Limited to smart or responsive materials


Static, fixed shape

Dynamic, can change shape or properties over time


Relatively simple to design and manufacture

More complex, requires advanced materials knowledge



Higher, due to specialised materials and processes


High, but limited to static properties

Extremely high, with dynamic properties and behaviours


Varies depending on material choice

Potential for greater sustainability with eco-friendly materials

4D Printing Examples

Several notable examples of 4D printing projects include:

  • Skylar Tibbits' self-assembling structures: MIT researcher Skylar Tibbits has been a pioneer in the world of 4D printing, creating self-assembling structures that transform when exposed to water
  • George Washington University's responsive materials: Researchers at George Washington University have developed a shape memory polymer that can be 4D printed and used in various applications, such as soft robotics and medical devices
  • Bone marrow regeneration: A team of scientists have developed a 4D printed scaffold that can promote bone marrow regeneration, potentially revolutionising the treatment of bone injuries and diseases

The Future of 4D Printing

The future of 4D printing holds promise for numerous industries, from aerospace engineering to healthcare and beyond. As research and development continues, we can expect to see more advanced materials, more efficient printing processes, and a broader range of potential applications. With further advancements in technologies and multi-materials, the potential applications of 4D printing could transform the way we design and manufacture objects, enabling a new era of innovation and customisation to suit the needs of end-users.


What is 4D printing's fourth dimension?

The fourth dimension in 4D printing is not really a ‘fourth dimension’ at all, but actually refers to the ability of an object to change its shape or functionality over time in response to external stimuli, such as temperature, light, or moisture.

What is the process of 4D printing?

4D printing is similar to 3D printing in that it involves designing a 3D shape and then printing the object layer by layer using an additive manufacturing process. However, the use of a selected smart material that can change its properties in response to external stimuli means that the finished object has added functionalities and properties not found in 3D printed objects.

What is 4D printing used for?

While still a relatively young technology, 4D printing has numerous potential applications, including soft robotics, medical implants, aerospace engineering, fashion and apparel, infrastructure and construction. The applications for 4D printing are expected to increase as the technology advances.

When will 4D printing be available?

4D printing is still in the research and development phase, but some prototypes and proof-of-concept projects have already been completed. Widespread commercial availability may still be several years away.

What materials can be used in 4D printing?

4D printing requires the use of smart or responsive materials, such as shape memory polymers, renewable soybean oil, or other materials that can change their properties in response to external stimuli. The range of suitable materials is currently limited but is expected to expand as research progresses.

For more information please email: