Keeping up with technology

If you're still trying to get your head around 3D printing, and how to use it, then you're already behind the curve. That's because 3D printing has become old news to some with the focus now firmly on 4D printing.

Now, if you're like me then you may still be trying to figure out just where 3D printing is best used, and justifying that pretty hefty price tag to management. Yes, it's cool and all the kids are doing it, but how are you – or I – going to make that pitch to buy one. Will it make your designs better, more creative, quicker? I'm not totally sure it will or won't. It's all a bit, maybe.

That's especially as 3D printing is now being usurped by 4D printing. What's that, I hear you ask? Well it is a type of smart material that basically assembles itself. While this sounds impressive examples so far are, to me at least, fairly underwhelming.

They are really fairly basic shape memory materials that are produced using the layer by layer method of 3D printing. Shape memory materials, like many 'smart materials', have quirky and unique properties that certainly have the 'wow' factor. Yes they may fascinate and inspire students for final year projects, but most have been around for some time now. Whilst certainly impressive on one level, the practical question of what is the application, and more specifically what is the cost effective application, still remains. While I don't want to dismiss the technology, I do question the hype.

And this brings me to ponder the wider question of keeping up with technology and material developments more generally. For me, at Engineering Materials, it is fascinating and exciting to see just how fast developments are moving and the increasing pressure on engineers to use these 'new' materials.

While this is broadly a good thing, it must be done because of clear understanding and not because of the hype behind a material or technology. Design has always had hints of short termism and the need to be fashionable, but we must remember to use something because we understand the benefit, because it offers some advantages, not because our competitors have done so. I can liken it the modern obsession by some to buy the next Apple product, not because you need it, but because you want it. But it really offers no major advantage, just something different to what came before. Don't be fooled!

So should you be concerned about not being 4D print ready? Not if I was you.

Justin Cunningham

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