4D Printing in Space

4th Dimensional Additive Manufacturing

4D printing incorporates the element of time as the fourth dimension. The advanced form of 3D printing uses smart materials that can change shape, functionality, and other properties when certain conditions are met.

Self Assembly and Transformation

4D printed objects can self assemble or transform into other shapes over time. Programming 4D printed objects requires precise control over materials properties and their distribution within an object to achieve the desired effect.

Space Industry Use Cases

The space industry is among the early adopters of 4DP technology. The following are just some examples of space industry projects leveraging 4D printing.

ESA and Zortrax

In 2023, the European Space Agency (ESA) and Polish 3D printer manufacturer Zortrax collaborated on developing intricate 3D structures with shape memory polymers and electrically conductive materials.

Michał Siemaszko, Head of R&D at Zortrax, told 3DPrint.com: “4D printing generated a lot of interest in the space industry because, in theory, the technology could enable engineers and mission designers to reduce the weight of deployable structures like antennas, booms, or various sensors. The weight of such structures made traditionally is always a sum of the structure itself and the mechanism to deploy it. But if it was possible to get rid of the deployment mechanisms altogether, they could be made even lighter and smaller.”

NASA Space Chain Mail

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2017 began developing 4D printed space chain mail comprised of woven metal with reflectivity, passive heat management, foldability, and tensile strength to shield astronauts from flying meteorites.

Other Potential Applications

Research is underway for a variety of potential applications such as self-assembling space habitats (MIT), space antennas (DARPA), and shape-shifting solar arrays (Tethers Unlimited), among others.

Lengthy Runway

Sarah Goehrke, founder of Additive Integrity LLC, writes in Machine Design: “With the capability of producing self-changing parts and products, we can only expect to see the rise of 4D printing going forward. When, how and, overall, if 4D printing leaps out of the R&D lab, though, remains in large part to be seen.”

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