Written by TKS Las Vegas student, Caitlyn Coloma (email: caitayc@gmail.com)

Around 1800, the world was in the midst of the first industrial revolution, which transformed a largely agrarian society with small scale production to an industrialized urban populace centered around mechanization and manufacturing.

Fast forward another century or so to 1900 during the second industrial revolution, when a revitalization of scientific principles fostered the development of mass production, and in turn, mass consumerism.

Fast forward again, to the late 1960s, and we arrive at the third industrial revolution, this time a digital one, where electronics replace mechanical analog technologies. We’re still experiencing the effects of this one, but we just might be heading into another very soon—if we’re not there already

The first industrial revolution began with the construction of the first mechanical loom in 1784. With each successive industrial revolution came increasing complexity in the technology driving it.

Before we get into the possibilities of a 4th industrial revolution, let’s recognize some patterns of the first three. With each successive industrial revolution, innovations to existing technologies had ramifications economic, political, social, and environmental in nature and global in scope. What’s more is the time between each revolution decreased, indicating that technology develops at an increasingly faster rate; that is, innovation spurs innovation.

Furthermore, the technological advances of each preceding revolution was available to the masses by the next one. For example, those in 1900 reaped the benefits of industrialization, and by the 1960s, mass production pervaded society. What was revolutionary a century or even decades before became ordinary with time.

So where do we stand in these cyclical patterns of revolution? Are we in the 4th industrial revolution? What does the 4th industrial revolution even look like?

Enter 4D Printing

It’s 2019 and, yes, we are in the 4th industrial revolution. Most people characterize this by the increased incorporation of robotics or cyber tech into society, but something entirely different may prove responsible, though it’s just as exciting: 4D printing.

Just as the development of industry has been cyclical, so has the development of 4D printing. We owe traditional 2D, ink-on-paper printers to the technologies of the digital revolution, and indirectly to the printing press of the first industrial revolution even before that.

Then, we started printing with things other than ink.

Where manufacturing was once a tedious and complex process involving hundreds of components and steps of assembly, 3D printing provides a simplified alternative that eliminates any and all compromises on design.

In the scope of revolutions, 3D printers are relatively recently developed technologies, and they have a long way to go to reach the level of ubiquity that 2D printers have achieved. But while we are nowhere close to expending all the potential that 3D printing has to offer—from clothing to art, from the architecture that grows megacities to the organs that save lives —3D printing is not the extent of innovation in 2019.

The 4th Dimension: Time

When we subject a 3D print to respond to changes in environmental stimuli (temperature, light, moisture, etc.) and transform over time, we bring printing into the 4th dimension and we bring ourselves into the 4th industrial revolution.

3D-printed components of a chair are placed in a tank of water. They respond by assembling on their own, and the 4D printed chair builds itself.

What makes 4D printing revolutionary?

Answer: Everything that makes 3D printing revolutionary, and then some.

  • A specialist approach to problem solving is assumed. The mass customization of 3D printing allows even the most superficial problems (fashion) alongside more serious problems (transplant organs). Put this in concert with the dimension of time, and you get dynamic solutions, such as orthodontic applications for braces that change shape and size as teeth shift, or a sports helmet that fits the head shape of every player on a team by expanding or contracting in response to body heat.
  • Production and consumption are more closely linked. 4D printing eliminates the need for product transportation, and in turn the carbon emissions from the vehicles that facilitate such transportation. Here, the producer is the consumer, and a printer with the right dimensions guarantees that supply will always meet demand.
  • Manufacturing is additive and autonomous. No material is wasted because everything that is printed is intentional (additive) and self assembly removes the complexity from manufacturing (autonomy).
  • Metamaterials ensure that 3D prints will behave in predetermined manners. By synthesizing new materials that combine the desired structures of existing materials, prints will behave exactly as we want them to. How different 4D prints fold or twist or curl in response to temperature or light or moisture depends on the specific physical properties of the (meta)material it’s made of. The ability to manipulate metamaterials allows us to control our 4D prints.
  • Material robotics = robotics without robots. Forms of autonomy other than 4D printing exist, with the largest strides made in robotics. The problem with robotics is that it is often expensive, failure prone, and requires power, while 4D printing capitalizes on the intrinsic properties of 3D-printed metamaterials, essentially programming the materials themselves to move in predictable ways.

The fact that the advent of 4D printing comes at a time when 3D printing is still in its infancy is significant for 2 reasons:

  1. It disrupts the cycle that characterizes each step of the development of 4D printing as discrete advances in printing technology. Innovation is continuous. No one waited for the applications of 3D printing to fully flesh themselves out before proposing 4D printing—both are developing simultaneously.
  2. Both 3D and 4D printing have propelled us into the 4th industrial revolution. It’s here, for better or for worse.

What’s next?

At the rate historical industrial revolutions have gone, should we be anticipating a 5th industrial revolution, a 6th? As of right now, it seems that 4D printing could not possibly become obsolete or ordinary. And in 1784, that’s probably what someone thought of the world’s first mechanical loom.

But that’s the nature of innovation. As long as time is a factor (and a dimension) innovation is not only inevitable, it’s imminent, and that is revolutionary 🔮.