Intelligent Materials Will Spearhead the Industrial Revolution 4.0

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The Industrial Revolution 4.0 is being talked about, but some of its technologies, such as 3D printing, have existed for several decades; however, in recent years, the largest deployment of this generation’s tech is being carried out.

3D printing is a method of manufacturing any element in just a few minutes without more preparation than having to  digitally design the sketch or scan. This technology is estimated to move around $26.7 billion dollars during the next year.

This technology is being introduced in different sectors such as health (manufacture of personalized prostheses or replicas of organs to prepare surgical interventions), motorsport (development of accessories or components on an individual scale), space (replacement in orbit depending on the needs of the ship) or aeronautics (spare parts for aircrafts in flight).

We are just scratching the surface of this technology, but every day, there is greater growth and application.

While additive manufacturing is consolidating by leaps and bounds,  the sector is already talking about a new technological revolution – the “revolution after the revolution.”

After 3D printing comes the 4D revolution, a concept that starts from the same base but what’s different are the materials being used. No longer will we rely on traditional plastic and metal. Instead, we’ll use “intelligent materials.”

Intelligent materials are those whose properties (shape, flexibility, hardness, etc.) can be adapted depending on the context in which they are in. For example, they can adapt depending on temperature, pressure, or being submerged in water.

With these new materials, you can manufacture any object in just a few minutes and program them to behave in different ways according to your needs.

4D Printing and Manufacturing

Within 4D manufacturing, additive manufacturing techniques are used, that is they use materials capable of transforming, adapting to circumstances, capable of self-assembly and/or self-reparation. Therefore, the idea behind 4D printing is to take 3D multimaterial printing as reference and layer on these additional aforementioned capabilities.

As the MIT researcher Skylar Tibbits commented: “It’s like robotics but without cables or circuits, being able to print any piece and transform it into something totally different.”

The intelligent materials in this new technology must, therefore, change and adapt to the application of passive energies, such as thermal, pneumatic, kinetic, magnetic and even gravitational energies.

These materials will be able to perform computational processes and other previously unknown functions because they have not been explored, always depending on how their properties are transformed according to a specific situation.

For this, the structures of the materials must be able to self-assemble and organize isolated elements into useful geometric models used to establish the design correctly at all times.

Impact of intelligent materials in different sectors

Once the new generation of additive manufacturing has been analyzed, we can ask ourselves what will be the impact in the different sectors of activity? The following cases can be analyzed:

Fashion/retail: with intelligent materials you will get to change shape in realtime, that is, a sportswear company will be able to design a sports shoe with a sole that adapts to the wet or dry paved floor to improve its grip.

Medicine: medical companies will be able to design ‘self-assembling stents’ to reduce surgery times and improve patient’s evolution. We can take the example of 3 American children with breathing anomalies and who had splints to open their trachea (these devices were adapted to the children during their growth and  will eventually dissolve when they fulfill their mission).

Construction:  Imagine walls that adjust their thickness automatically during the different seasons of the year to adapt their insulation or in certain time zones. It can be applied in more complex and intelligent structures for buildings that change physical properties according to the use or the capacities to adapt to extreme conditions such as temperature, or if seismic activity is suffered.

Urban infrastructures: it will be possible to adapt the capacity that will allow the design of more efficient smartcities. It could be integrated, for example, in piping systems that automatically change their diameter in response to the flow and demand of water, or roads that change their properties to favor the absorption of water when it rains or increase the friction for speeding cars that in order to slow them down.

Defense: thanks to this technology, the battalions can have at their disposal vehicles that will be able to camouflage themselves with the environment where they are. Imagine lighter  bulletproof vests  since their fibers are only grouped in the position at the moment of receiving an impact.

Intelligent materials are in the early stages

This new technology is in the ‘hype cycle’, a stage in which its research situates the different trends based on its maturity, expectations of growth and consolidation of the existing offer.

Therefore, this technology appeared during the past year on the adoption curve, which means that it is at the very beginning of its explosion, with a projection of at least a decade for large-scale implementation.

Despite the immaturity, there are already some proofs of concept and pilot projects that demonstrate the effectiveness and potential. For example:

Rutgers University, in New Jersey, has developed an intelligent gel capable of developing living structures in human organs and tissues, which changes shape in the face of temperature variations.

Harvard University is working on hygroscopic ink, which absorbs water, which could be applied in 4D printing, and the ink could move freely within the liquid element, imitating the movement of leaves and petals as they react to stimuli.

A brave new world my friends.

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