Never fear the unknown. A trio of university researchers from Harvard, the University of Illinois and the University of Pittsburgh, received a grant worth $855,000 from the U.S. Army to advance 3D printing to another dimension. The group plans to develop 4D materials that can exhibit changes that occur over time. For example, an outfit printed for a soldier could change to a camouflage print or adjust to be resistant to shrapnel.

Jennifer Lewis, co-principal investigator and professor of biology inspired engineering at Harvard, explains that current 3D printing technology allows the researchers to build in complicated functionality at the nano and micro levels not just throughout an entire structure, but also within specific areas of the structure. “If you use materials that possess the ability to change their properties or shape multiple times, you don’t have to build for a specific, one-time use,” she says. “Composites that can be reconfigured in the presence of different stimuli could dramatically extend the reach of 3D printing.”

According to Ralph Nuzzo, co-principal investigator and professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois, through the creation of responsive materials that are adaptive, flexible, lightweight and strong, it’s possible to have a material that will respond to light by changing its color and to temperature by altering its permeability.

These researchers are planning for the 4D printing capabilities to be used for coating, textiles, structural components and so on. Automobile coating could change its structure to adapt to a humid environment or a salt-covered road, better protecting the car from corrosion. The possibilities of this 4D printing technology could be limitless.