3D and 4D Printing Industries Overview

November 05, 2019

By Aimee Conant

In 2014, the budding 3D printing market was valued at $4 million globally. It is expected to reach $44 million by 2025 with an expected compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 21.8% from 2019 through 2025. The 3D printing market’s next evolution step, 4D printing -- as coined by Skylar Tibbits during his TED Talk presentation in 2013 -- is projected to register a CAGR of 39% during the 2019-to-2022 forecast period. This will bring its global market value to $162 million. The 3D and 4D printing markets have been referred to as the largest disrupters since the internet. We see the impressive numbers and forecasted strong growth, but what are 3D and 4D printing? Where and when did the industry develop and, most importantly, where is it going?

3D printing is additive manufacturing technology that creates objects by adding materials in layers, as opposed to removing material from a larger piece. The savings in scrap, materials lost in the manufacturing process, are substantial. This technology also allows for seamless water-tight creations. There are many types of 3D printing technologies out there, so I will touch on the three most commonly used.

The technology behind some forms of 3D printing has been around for almost 40 years. The first patent for a 3D printing technology was applied for in 1980 by Dr. Hideo Kodama in Japan for a rapid prototyping device with a laser beam resin curing system. Unfortunately, the application never went through due to funding issues.

The first successful patent was applied for in 1984 by Charles Hull in the United States. This process, called Stereolithography, used UV lights to cure photosensitive resin layer-by-layer. The patent was issued in 1986 and 3D Systems was formed. The company soon introduced one of the three commonly used 3D printer types, Stereolithography apparatus (SLA). SLA is commonly used for prototyping, medical modeling, injection molds and jewelry.

In 1989, Carl Deckard was issued a patent for one of the other commonly used forms of 3D printing, selective laser sintering (SLS). This process uses a high powered laser to sinter powdered material into a solid form based on a 3D model. SLS is used in a wide array of industries, replacing functions such as CNC machining, sheet metal fabrication, and injection molding.

In 1992 Scott Crump, the co-founder of Stratasys, was issued a patent for another form of 3D printing, fused deposition modeling (FDM). This form of 3D printing uses a thermoplastic filament, heated to its melting point and then extruded, in layers, to print a three-dimensional object that has been designed in a CAD program and converted to a format readable by the 3D printer. FDM is the most commonly used 3D printing technology. It is used throughout the automotive and consumer goods industries and in food and drug packaging, s well as by engineering firms for test fitting.

From its humble 3D printing beginnings, the concept of 4D printing was formed. What is 4D printing? In short, programmed materials are used to make a 3D-printed object react to a trigger (some form of energy: heat, light, motion, water, etc.) and change into its programed shape. The technology is currently being researched on a worldwide scale.

All types of 3D printing are constantly evolving and being involved in more and more industries. 4D printing, while in its infancy, has the potential to change the world as we know it. What will the future hold? Affordable medical replacement organs that have no rejection rate? 3D-printed food? Clothes that fold themselves? Self-transforming furniture and equipment? Will we all have 3D or 4D printers at home, just waiting for us to download a schematic and print out a replacement glass every time we break one? Or print out the latest clothing and footwear? How about a 3D-printed home? All these concepts, and many more, are being worked on. The possibilities are endless and only the future will tell.

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