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3D Printing Accelerates, 4D Printing Gets Started

by Pete Basiliere  |  January 3, 2019  |  Submit a Comment

As manufacturing industries, healthcare providers and supply chains accelerate their practical uses of 3D printing, 4D printing is entering the market. Gartner’s predictions for 2019 highlight technologies and trends to consider as you plan future manufacturing processes and products.

Our annual predictions for the 3D printing industry was published in mid-December. My colleagues Ivar Berntz, Miriam Burt, Anshul Gupta, Mike Jones, Dale Kutnick, Marc Halpern and Michael Shanler co-authored the predictions. The complete 20-page report (available here) goes into greater detail on the evidence for and reasoning behind our predictions.

Prediction: By 2023, startup companies working to commercialize 4D printing will attract $300 million in venture capital.

Four-dimensional printing (4DP) is a technique where the materials are encoded with a dynamic capability — either function, confirmation or properties — that can change via the application of chemicals, electronics, particulates, nanomaterials and advanced designs.

4DP is an opportunity to create future technology-based products that could disrupt industries. The technology, which is in the Innovation Trigger phase of the Gartner Hype Cycle for 3D Printing, has already attracted research at several universities.

Airbus, Autodesk, HP and Stratasys are publicly held companies known to be working on 4D printing, while it is likely that defense contractors are also engaged in such projects. DARPA’s Engineered Living Materials (ELM) project is investigating 4D technology to develop “living biomaterials that combine the structural properties of traditional building materials with attributes of living systems.”

Building 4DP capabilities will initially present significant computer, scientific and engineering hurdles. Designing parts and products for 3D already poses significant disruption to design methodologies. Building on those disruptions to design methods, 4DP advances demand that engineers think about how they want the smart materials to behave and then how engineers must design them.


Prediction: By 2023, 25% of medical devices in developed markets will make use of 3D printing.

The application of 3DP technologies and techniques within healthcare is accelerating and will play a central part in the planning and delivery of personalized clinical procedures in the next decade. This prediction is concerned with the shift toward the use of 3D printing for presurgical planning (for example, anatomical models) and in performing joint replacement, surgical implants and prosthetics.

Aside from the direct benefits to the clinicians and patients, there is likely to be overall cost improvement provided competition can flourish and as the technology and technique scales. A critical factor in achieving the predicted adoption rate will be the ability for healthcare regulations to keep up with the opportunity across geographic regions.

We see some pitfalls, including:

  • Poor technical integration, data custodianship, and mercenary monetization of data and models that create barriers for health systems to partake in 3DP.
  • Healthcare payers reluctant to fund if they believe cost-effectiveness cannot be demonstrated.
  • Surgical and technical limitations in more-complex use cases and where procedures raise ethical and regulatory concerns.


Prediction: By 2023, 3D printing using biosynthetics and living cells will drive a multibillion-dollar prosthetic and organ “patch” and replacement market.

3D printing prosthetic limbs and appendages (for example, ears) and some specific internal valves is progressing rapidly, primarily using various polymers as the material. During the past three years, the rapid development of bioinks and specialized print heads and nozzles for 3D printing stem cells, coupled with improved multicartridge capabilities, has enabled significant advances in hybrid “biosynthetic” structures.

Biosynthetic substances like hydrogels and collagens are increasingly being explored and tested to provide “scaffolding” for stem cells to build organ patches, cartilaginous structure (like tracheas and joint cartilage), and even whole organs that have minimal or modest physiological functions. Numerous startups, universities and research labs are developing and testing 3D printed tissues, patches and organs, using increasingly sophisticated techniques.

3DP is also used extensively in laboratories to create in vitro organ and tissue “slices” — cells that are used to test new drug therapies, toxicity, dosages, adverse reactions and so on. But creating entire functional, solid organs such as lungs, liver, pancreas and kidneys remains elusive, especially those with multiple cell types that support complex physiology (for example, producing hormones, biochemicals, catalysts, other cells and “filters”). This will have to wait for when these organs can be grown and harvested inside a living being. We are many decades away from that because of the scientific and ethical challenges.


Prediction: By 2020, less than 10% of the 3D printed wearables market will be for health- and medical-related benefits.

3D printed wearables have broad opportunities, ranging from fashion, health and medical fields to sports and professional training. They offer many benefits, such as building quick prototypes, reducing cost or customizing to suit individual preferences. In the near term, use of 3D printed wearables technology will revolve around augmenting user capabilities and supporting users with disabilities.

Due to the high cost of 3D printed wearables and the requirement for high-resolution 3D models and materials (plastic for most 3D printed wearables), they are suitable for applications where high cost is not a deterrent. 3D printed wearables technology depends to a large extent on advances in materials science to deliver the full advantages of wearables technology.

Over the long term, there will be advances in 3DP technology and printable electronics to build stretchable electronic devices by using electrically conductive inks, thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) and electronic components. These far-reaching applications will truly utilize the advantages of wearables technology.


Prediction: By 2020, 3D printed metals and alloys will become a critical element in supply chains for replacement parts in commercial, military and even some consumer markets.

3D printers limited to making items with various plastics are used throughout the product development life cycle. However, the goal for many organizations is 3D-printed metal parts, whether a component of a larger product or as the finished, saleable item. 3D printing small volumes of these pure metal or metal alloy parts is particularly attractive in markets such as aircraft, spacecraft, watercraft and undersea craft, as well as military equipment, medical devices, and manufacturing systems.

3D printers that use bound materials will accelerate the trend to lower ASPs and increased shipments. 3D printing with bound materials is an additive manufacturing process that draws on traditional metal injection molding (MIM) and ceramic injection molding (CIM) techniques. The process is a low-cost alternative to traditional metal and ceramic additive manufacturing technologies and can be used in a potentially wide range of applications.

Examples of metal 3D-printed parts that are in use — and will require 3D-printed spares at some point — include:

An indication of the strength of our prediction is the global activities by various standards organizations. ASTM International, through its Committee F42 on Additive Manufacturing Technologies, and the ISO/TC 261 on Additive Manufacturing are among the international initiatives to develop standards for additive manufacturing generally, as well as metal materials specification and testing. Other standards organizations active in this field include Association of Small & Medium Enterprises (ASME), CEN, IEEE and SAE International.

Additional Resources

Category: 3d-printing  additive-manufacturing  advanced-manufacturing  technology-and-emerging-trends  

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Pete Basiliere
Research Vice President
12 years at Gartner
18 years IT Industry

Mr. Basiliere provides research-based insights on 3D printing and digital printing hardware, software and materials. Mr. Basiliere's Maverick research coined the term Generation AI, people born after 2010 who will not know a world without application intelligence in their lives. Read Full Bio

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