3D Printing

Zortrax successfully developed 4D printing technology

1st June 2023
Sheryl Miles

For over a year Zortrax has been a contractor of the European Space Agency (ESA) in a project aimed at developing new 4D printing technologies for space industry.

Now, this project is successfully completed by the Zortrax research and development team. Here’s how 4D printing works, what’s been achieved, and what it means for the future of space exploration and many other high-tech fields like aviation or energy production.

3D printing is an additive manufacturing technology that enables building physical, three-dimensional objects layer by layer based on the digital model. The fourth, additional dimension added in the 4D printing technology is time. 4D printed objects can change their geometry and other properties in response to various stimuli like temperature, moisture, electric current, and many more. Imagine an origami-like structure that stays folded in room temperature but unfolds when heated up.  

“4D printing generated a lot of interest in the space industry because, in theory, the technology could enable engineers and mission designers to reduce weight of deployable structures like antennas, booms, or various sensors. The weight of such structures made in a traditional way is always a sum of the structure itself and the mechanism that is supposed to deploy it. But if it was possible to get rid of the deployment mechanisms altogether, they could be made even lighter and smaller,” says Michał Siemaszko, the Head of Research and Development at Zortrax S.A.

4D printing made headlines in 2013 when a team of researchers working at MIT 3D printed objects with programmable shape changing capabilities triggered when the object was exposed to a thermal stimulus. There were a few drawbacks to overcome, however, before this technology could find any real-world applications. The shape changing process was dependent entirely on the environment's temperature change and was triggered only when this temperature reached a certain level. There was no way to deploy such structures sequentially, for example, because the entire object was heated all at once. Moreover, controlling the environment was not always an option, especially in space. Zortrax, funded by ESA, worked on a concept solving these issues. 

Zortrax R&D team used Zortrax M300 Dual, a desktop dual extrusion FDM 3D printer and a modified version o Z-SUITE, Zortrax’s own 3D printing software, to 3D print structures made of shape memory polymers and electrically conductive materials.

"Combining such advanced materials in a dual extrusion 3D printing process on the M300 Dual opens a clear path towards building reliable, light-weight mechanisms that can function without separate actuators, engines, or control circuits which is critically important in fields such as energy production, smart sensors, and defence industry, just to name a few besides space exploration itself," says Dawid Piastowski, Materials Development Leader at Zortrax S.A.

In those mechanisms, shape memory polymers worked as actuators and electrically conductive materials worked as electrically powered heaters. This way it was possible to build technology demonstrators showcasing three types of movement: bending, torsion, and deployment, that could be activated with a push of a button.

“The most commonly used stimulus for the activation of 4D printed mechanisms is temperature. Looking into space application, the amplitude of temperature change can be very large and even if it can be used as a trigger for shape changing activation, it can be difficult to control in a gradual way. So, in space systems it is easier to control the electrical input. The idea behind this project was to take advantage of thermally induced shape changing capability but using a more controlled activation via heat generated by electrical current. Such concepts are under evaluation due to their potential to decrease the number of parts in complex systems while maintaining their capability to provide controlled, on demand movement and actuation,” says Dr. Ugo Lafont, Materials' Physics and Chemistry Engineer at ESA.

For Zortrax, successful completion of this project opens up a path to more advanced projects with more significant funding to further develop this technology and eventually make electrically activated 4D printed ready for space missions.

Work in this project was performer under ESA contract co. 4000135883/21/NL/KML/rk. The view expressed herein can in no way be taken to reflect the official opinion of the European Space Agency.

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