4D printing: just add water

Although it may take a while to see the implications of 3D printing on the re/insurance industry, an even newer technology may be an underwriting game changer: 4D printing.

Imagine printing a cord in 3D and placing it in water. Then, after a few minutes, you see the finished product fold and twist on its own. That's 4D printing.

Four-dimensional printing is 3D printing with an added element: time. Objects made by 4D printing are formed with materials that can adapt, dissolve and/or move by themselves. The prospects for 4D printed objects are tremendous. Four-dimensional printing could be used to make organs or cancer-fighting nanobots. It might also be used in construction, interior design, fashion, and the automotive, aerospace and marine industries.

According to Skylar Tibbits, head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Self-Assembly Lab, 4D printing materials could allow items to "change, dissolve, grow or shape without additional chips, transistors or processors."  They would morph completely unaided.

Tibbits shared his views on 4D printing's future at the Centre for Global Dialogue Expert Forum, "3D printing: changing the world one print at a time."

He says that with 4D printing we are creating robots without robots – enabling an object to change, move, adapt without adding additional microchips and sensors, but rather working out how to programme a material to respond to the certain environment. "We want to have more by adding less".

The researcher is known for his work on 4D printing, developing items such as airplane valves that morph depending on the humidity.

3D, 4D: why should we care?

Let's be honest: the potential for 4D printing is still in its embryonic stages. But just as with 3D printing, the insurance industry should keep an eye on 4D printing's developments.

Understanding the properties and possible applications of 4D printed products will be one of the difficulty for underwriters, moreover, when this technology is used in the medical industry or other industries that might have a large potential impact on human health, questions about the durability and reliability of these parts will arise.

In addition, intellectual property rights and cyber cover issues may need a second look. Where CAD files and designs become sellable and easily distributed items that can be shared and stored in online stores and platforms, one might ask how we deal with the issue of ownership. If it is possible to manipulate the files the traceability issues arise. As we live in the digital age potential misuse or malicious intrusion would trigger cyber issues.

At the ready

Even though 4D printing is a hot topic, we won't see the effect of this new technology in the re/insurance segment for some time. With that said, we're ready.

We're working with clients to share knowledge not just about 4D printing but all sorts of new technologies on the horizon.  We're closely monitoring developments in this technique and our risk experts are ready to work with clients and partners to identify and assess issues surrounding 4D printing.

Published 2 November 2015


Engineering projects often push the boundaries of the tried and tested, involving risks along the way that are hard for the insurance industry to assess, and harder still to underwrite. To close the gap...

Read the whole story

Opening of the Gotthard Base Tunnel...

The epoch-making Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland officially opens on 1 June 2016. With its two 57 km single-track tubes and a rock overburden of up to 2300 metres, it is not only the world's longest...

Read the whole story