Healthcare will be one of the first industries to take advantage of 4D printing, a technology that could have a profound effect on supply chain practices in many sectors.
Medical device makers are already developing applications using 4D printing, after researchers begin describing how the much-talked-about variation of 3D printing was possible in theory over a year ago.
4D-printed medical applications could see the prototype stage by end of next year, analysts say.
First described by Skylar Tibbits of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Selfassembly Lab, 4D printing takes 3D printing further by designing devices to adapt and change their structure, in real-time if needed.
Developers are now looking for ways to design devices that might change physically once implanted in the human body in the medical field. A 4D-printed device, for example, might be programmed to change its shape and function if it comes into contact with certain cells or biochemical.
Tibbits recently wrote:
Personal and responsive products will adapt to users' demands, biometric information, body temperature, sweat and internal pressures. Similarly, products can now become far more resilient and highly tuned to environmental changes including moisture content, temperature, pressure, altitude or sound. Unique and highly tuned products will be manufactured in completely new ways where materials are activated through ambient energies to come together on their own, reconfigure, mutate and replicate. Volume constraints in shipping will be dramatically reduced with flat-pack materials that are activated on delivery to full volume and functionality.
While the idea of implanting used devices in the human body may not sound appealing, 4D printing could put the concept to good use as devices become able to reprogram themselves to fit the needs of other patients.
"All of these future programmable products will not just be thrown away when they fail; rather, they will error-correct and self-repair to meet new demands," Tibbits wrote. "And even when they become obsolete, they can self-disassemble for pure recyclability, breaking themselves down to their fundamental components to be reconstituted as new products with lifelike capabilities in the future."
One such device in development that could see the prototype stage in the near future is neurovascular coils, Venkat Rajan, an analyst for Frost & Sullivan, told EBN.
Currently, neurovascular coils are used to pack aneurysm sacs and prevent them from rupturing, Rajan said. "Recently, advances with the coils involve having them covered with bioreactive coatings that can expand after implanted and create a better seal," Rajan said.
With this technology, 4-D printed neurovascular coils can be designed to better change their structure once in the body. "They can be printed in a manner that allows for customized shape or material changes and can react to specific biological stimuli," Rajan said.
Indeed, a major medical device application for 4D printing is medical implants, Rajan said. With 3D printing, custom-designed implants based on a patient's anatomy allows for a better fit and, therefore, a lowered likelihood of complications, compared to when a template design is implanted. "4D printing allows for additive manufacturing components that enable the printed object to adapt or react to its surroundings. In the case of a 4D-printed medical implant, it could allow it to expand or self construct in a manner that ensures greatest fit within the body," Rajan said. "Also, there is the potential for it to react and adapt to changes in the body--in the same way our native tissue might."
Prostheses will likely see introduction as prototypes in 2015, Pete Basiliere, an analyst for Gartner, told EBN.
"Imagine 4D printing prostheses as flat, unfinished forms and then shipping the forms to an underserved region. The 4D-printed forms are fashioned into their final shapes upon receipt," Basiliere said. "These prostheses and other medical devices will be 4D-printed in those underserved regions once the technology has matured."
But while 4D-printed prototypes should see introduction next year, the applications in the medical field are vast, while most of them remain in the research stage at this time. Key applications in development include the design of nanoparticles and nanorobots for chemotherapy, in addition to self-assembling human-scale biomaterials, according to Frost & Sullivan.
"Though we don't have specific prototypes we can point to yet, there are likely countless experiments being conducted in research biomedical research centers exploring possible applications," Rajan said.