4-D Printing: The Solution to a $350 Billion Problem?

You’ve heard about 3-D printing technology. It’s poised to revolutionize the future of manufacturing globally. We call it the “Click, Print Anything Revolution.”

But do you know about 4-D printing?

4-D printing tech is what happens when 3-D printing gets “smart.” Like a seed that follows the inner instructions of its DNA, 3-D printed materials can be programmed to self-assemble.

These new materials can shift shapes in response to outside forces, such as contact with water, air, gravity, magnets and/or temperature change. “The idea behind 4-D printing,” says director of MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab Skylar Tibbits, “is that you take multimaterial 3-D printing… and you add a new capability, which is transformation.”

Tibbits is collaborating with Stratasys (NASDAQ: SSYS) to further his 4-D printing project at the Self-Assembly Lab. They believe the tech is powerful enough to disrupt “biology, material science, software, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, the arts and even space exploration.”

Harsh environments like outer space would, indeed, be made more accommodating. But one sector with more immediate, more practical application is underground…

It’s time to rescue the most vital resource on the planet: water.

We take water for granted all the time. About 60% of your body is made up of it.

You can survive three weeks without food. But without water? Try three days. We don’t recommend it…

Throughout history, the great civilizations understood its value: Egypt, with its pyramids by the Nile, and Rome, with its monumental aqueducts.

But here in the U.S., our modern-day empire is in serious trouble. Because most of the big water systems were built within a decade after WWII, 30% of water pipes are 40-80 years old. 10% are older.

That’s why if you listen closely, dear reader, you may be able to hear it…

Water mains breaking around the country every two minutes — 700 a day, on average.

A few months ago around our Baltimore office, the city’s main street was flowing like a river. Still, that was nothing compared with what happened on the Potomac. A pipe erupted so fiercely helicopters had to be called in to rescue people before they drowned.

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It’s the same everywhere else. In Philadelphia, cars and homes have been flooded. On the West coast, Los Angeles’ famous Ventura Boulevard has been swamped.

When something like that happens, you tend to be asked by local officials to stop watering your lawn and washing your car. Cut back on using toilets, they recommend. Same with dishwashers and washing machines. The fire departments need all they can get in case chaos breaks out.

But it becomes more than an inconvenience when it gets really bad. Even worse than property loss, bacteria and viruses can enter the greater water supply through broken pipes. The 2008 salmonella outbreak that sickened over 250 people in Alamosa, Colo., is a small example.

In fact, the nation’s drinking water system is so troubled the American Society of Civil Engineers gave it a grade of D-plus in its 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.

“You can’t have jobs, you can’t have businesses, homes, you can’t have hotels if this infrastructure isn’t in place,” says Eric Goldstein of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

And guess where action needs to be taken most?

I’ll give you a clue: It also has among the highest crime rates — official and unofficial.

Washington, D.C.’s, average pipe is 77 years old. In the wake of the Great Recession, funds dried up to fix the water problem. Some $10 billion were allocated from the stimulus package. But according to CNN, the funds needed over the next 20 years are $334.8 billion. The more we wait, the worse it gets.

So much for the government taking care of the public’s single most basic service: drinking water… Fortunately, our friend at MIT, Mr. Tibbits, has shown the potential of 4-D printing as a solution.

Tibbits is working more than a tad bit with a Boston company called Geosyntec to develop a new paradigm in water infrastructure. Rather than use fixed-capacity water pipes, they’re experimenting with nanoscale adaptive materials built from the environment.

Personally, I believe that the best technology is based on the work nature has already spent billions of years producing. 4-D printing with adaptive pipes to correct our water piping reminds me a lot of how human veins expand and contract to accommodate blood flow. The 4-D printing solution is similar.

“Imagine if water pipes could expand or contract to change capacity or change flow rate,” Tibbits said in a recent TED talk. “Or maybe [they] undulate like peristaltics to move the water themselves,” he said.

082613_tir2The Next Generation of Water Infrastructure Could Be 4-D Printed

“This isn’t expensive pumps or valves,” he continues. “This is a completely programmable and adaptive pipe on its own.”

To show a brief demonstration of different ways this could work, Tibbits showed how a strand of 4-D-printed material folded into the letters M-I-T when placed in water.

He used Autodesk (NASDAQ: ADSK) software called Project Cyborg to design it.

You can watch the under-nine-minute TED talk by clicking here.

Best,

Josh Grasmick
for Tomorrow in Review

The Daily Reckoning