Is 4D printing next for healthcare?

August 23, 2014 in Medical Technology

The healthcare industry will be among the first to reap the benefits of emerging four-dimensional printing technology, according to a new report from Frost Sullivan.

[See also: Triple aim]

4D printing develops chameleonic materials whose properties shift according to external stimuli, such as temperature changes.

As MIT research scientist Skylar Tibbits described it in a TED talk, the technology “will allow us to print objects that then reshape themselves or self-assemble over time. Think: a printed cube that folds before your eyes, or a printed pipe able to sense the need to expand or contract.”

[See also: 3-D printing: Healthcare's new edge]

??In the coming years, this technology could have a disruptive effect on healthcare and other industries, according to the study, impacting everything from artificial organs to smart sensors to nano technology.

“4D printing, an extension of three-dimensional printing, is superior to conventional manufacturing techniques in terms of performance, efficiency and quality, and can create new products with increased capabilities,” said Frost Sullivan analyst Jithendranath Rabindranath, in a press statement.

“Unlike conventional manufacturing techniques, it facilitates self-assembly of materials required to manufacture parts and products, thereby speeding up the process and reducing the need for labor,” he added.

As Smithsonian magazine put it earlier this year, “With a 3D printer, an operator plugs in a virtual blueprint for an object, which the printer uses to construct the final product layer by layer. To make something 4D, though, Tibbits feeds the printer a precise geometric code based on the object’s own angles and dimensions but also measurements that dictate how it should change shape when confronted with outside forces such as water, movement or a change in temperature.”

Still, the technology is some way off from commercialization, and there’s a lot of work ahead for it start making inroads in the market. Most applications are seen coming several years out, between 2017 and 2019, according to Frost Sullivan’s analysis.

The report points out that rapid prototyping technology hasn’t yet been widely tested for large-scale applications and physical object manufacturing, so in many ways the validity of 4D printing technology remains pretty theoretical.

In industries such as healthcare, “commercialization of products manufactured using 4D printing technology … might take longer due to the stringent regulatory or performance standards in these sectors,” according the the report.

Cost, of course, is another big hurdle to 4D adoption, in the early going, according to Frost Sullivan, which notes that even when companies are willing to invest, product prices tend to be high in order to recoup cost and maintain profitability on still-small production.

Nonetheless, says Rabindranath, “after a few years of mass commercialization, the cost of employing 4D printing technology will decrease, prompting several companies across a wide range of industries to integrate this technology into their manufacturing systems.

“Uptake will also strengthen due to the positive funding environment, which encourages confederations, research laboratories, universities, startups and big market participants especially in North America to invest in RD.”

Learn more here.

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