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The Next Wave: 4D Printing Programming The Material World


May 13, 2015

Now a new disruptive technology is on the horizon that may take 3D printing to an entirely new level of capability with profound implications for society, the economy, and the global operating environment
of government, business, and the public. Programmable matter (PM), here described as 4D printing (4DP), has the economic, environmental, geopolitical, and strategic implications of 3D printing while providing new and unprecedented capabilities in transforming digital information of the virtual world into physical objects of the material world.3 The fourth dimension in 4D printing refers to the ability for material objects to change form and function after they are produced, thereby providing additional capabilities and performance-driven applications.

Imagine a world in which solid material objects can morph into new shapes or change properties at the command of an individual or in pre-programmed response to changing external conditions like temperature, pressure, wind, or rain. That world— in which things are not quite what they seem—is on the horizon. It is a world of potentially huge benefits, from airplane wings that change form in flight to furniture and even buildings that selfassemble and reassemble for different functions.

Moreover, our planet’s limited resources could be better conserved. Material objects could be recycled not by saving some of the materials such as plastic to be melted down and reused, but by commanding the object to decompose into programmable particles or components that then can be reused to form new objects and perform new functions. The long-term potential of PM/4DP thus could be a more environmentally sustainable world in which fewer resources are necessary to provide products and services to a growing world population and rapidly expanding global middle class.

While PM could have significant benefits for nations as well as businesses and individuals, it could also create new uncertainties and even insecurities, especially for policymakers. The Internet and social media have created an everwidening sphere of activity outside government control in the virtual world. Now imagine a material world that can change in ways that are unpredictable by governments and potentially threatening to national security. While your bank account can be hacked and your identity stolen In cyberspace, your physical safety could be endangered in a world of PM.

Morphable wings could be hacked to crash airplanes while buildings could be commanded to “disassemble” with you inside. Anticipating such dangers, however, should enable protective measures to be “baked-in” to PM rather than recognized only after the fact.4 Some cybersecurity experts maintain that the structural vulnerabilities of the Internet could have been anticipated and designed out of the system from the beginning. Such considerations are even more paramount with the potential for the hacking of physical objects made by PM. Intellectual property (IP) rights could also become more complex, as products are able to morph from one form to another, thus directly challenging patent rights for multiple product lines.


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