It appears as if we're going to find out sooner rather than later, as the U.S. Army Research Office has awarded $855,000 to researchers at three different universities--Harvard's School of Engineering & Applied Science, The University of Illinois, and The University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering.
According to press releases from Harvard and The University of Pittsburgh, this will be a collaborative effort among principal researchers Anna C. Balaz, the Robert v. d. Luft Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, Jennifer A. Lewis, the Hansjörg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard SEAS, and Ralph G. Nuzzo, the G. L. Clark Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois.
The goals are vague right now, but the press release hints that 4D efforts could be used for such military advancements as "an automobile coating that changes its structure to adapt to a humid environment or a salt-covered road, better protecting the car from corrosion. Or consider a soldier's uniform that could alter its own camouflage or more effectively protect against poisonous gas or shrapnel upon contact."
"Rather than construct a static material or one that simply changes its shape, we're proposing the development of adaptive, biomimetic composites that reprogram their shape, properties or functionality on demand, based upon external stimuli," says Balazs in the press release.
"By integrating our abilities to print precise, three-dimensional, hierarchically-structured materials, synthesize stimuli-responsive components, and predict the temporal behavior of the system, we expect to build the foundation for the new field of 4D printing."
How else could 4D printing be implemented in the military, though?
The whole idea of 4D printing is that the parts of an object are autonomous and assemble (or re-assemble) themselves. This means that guns could change into other weapons, or aerial drones could turn into land-roaming machines.
This could be particularly useful for underwater vehicles like submarines, which may need to change coats as they travel through different climates.
The research is just beginning, but the possibilities are literally infinite. We're not sure whether to be scared or excited, but this is undeniably groundbreaking.
Below is a video from Skylar Tibbits--creator of 4D printing and head of MIT's new Self-Assembly Lab--that demonstrates how 4D printing works.4D Printing: MIT Self-Folding Strand from Skylar Tibbits on Vimeo.
If you have any predictions about how the military could use 4D printers, please share in the comment section below.
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