A team of researchers led by H. Jerry Qi, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado, and his former colleague Martin Dunn, of Singapore's University of Technology and Design, have successfully integrated "shape memory" polymer fibers into materials used for 3D printing.

They attained their goal following 18 months of focused work on the pioneering project.

This means objects that are fixed into one shape can later be changed, or transformed, into a new shape under environmental stimuli such as temperature or light. The physical materials are programmed to build themselves over time, hence "4D" printing.

"3D printing creates potentially complex artifacts that are stationary in time," Dunn said. "4D printing endows artifacts with the ability to change their shape and function in time. It allows objects to have multiple simultaneous functions or functions that can change over time. Time is the fourth dimension."

"4D printing combines the attractive attributes of 3D printing -- complex shapes and topologies that can not be manufactured by traditional means -- and adds the ability for these artifacts to change shapes, configurations and even functions in a prescribed way by design over time," Dunn said.

Dunn, who has been studying active and composite materials for over 20 years, said these developments have the potential to impact numerous fields.

"It is hard to say, as it is a technology that could broadly many industries," Dunn said.

"However, aerospace, energy, consumer products, and biomedical industries are areas that will likely be impacted."

The possibilities to researchers seem endless -- and applicable to everyday use.

Imagine, they suggested, getting a piece of furniture from Ikea, and instead of painstakingly figuring out what part goes where, one could simply apply heat to the furniture and watch it "self-assemble".

Dunn said this self-assembly concept can be applied not only to furniture but also to structures, like small buildings or aerospace structures.

The United States military is currently examining ways to utilize 4D printing, allocating various grants to universities working with 4D research. Jerry Qi, who has been studying shape memory polymers for the last seven years, said 4D printing would enhance both civilian and military life, specifically with electronic design.

"4D printing can enable lots of advanced technology that could benefit both civilian and military applications," Qi said.