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The development of a 4D printing manufacturing platform

4D printing means using 3D printing techniques to produce materials with programmable functionality. Since being introduced by Skylar Tibbits in 2013, materials engineers have created some innovative designs for simple actuating shapes which morph in response to stimuli like moisture, light or heat. The ability to print actuating devices has great potential in soft robotics, wearable technology and biomedical devices. For example, adaptable fabrics with programmable stiffness could be used to make exoskeletons with advanced therapeutic functionality. However, this new field is in its infancy; there are limited stimuli, and the structures produced are often mechanically weak with slow response times. Researchers are struggling to create more complex designs because techniques for modelling and designing actuators lack the multi-scale sophistication required. Furthermore, the 4D printing platforms themselves are without the precision needed for material composition and function to be spatially controlled, such that designs can be integrated from the nanoscale chemistry to the macroscale mechanics.

A 3D printed object

Further Information

The aim of this project is to produce a 4D printing manufacturing platform which includes new active polymer composite materials, bespoke hardware, and new modelling software which will facilitate the design of complex actuating mechanical architectures. To realise this, the project objectives are; to synthesise and characterise the properties and processing parameters of three different polymer composites which actuate under different stimuli; to use these parameters to inform the modification of a 3D printer to handle the materials; create a computer model which accurately predicts the mechanics of actuating composites and use it as a tool to design simple 4D printed objects. Print these designs to test and refine the model.

This project is led by Dr Anna Ploszajski, who is based at the Institute of Making. Anna completed her PhD at UCL in 2017, and recently completed a 6-month postdoc with us, on Nature Inspired 4D printing for biomedical applications, which has laid the groundwork for this new project. This latest project is funded by a two-year, UCL EPSRC Doctoral Prize Fellowship.