After more than 30 years in the markets, I've seen all kinds of new technologies that are supposed to change the world. Most are pumped by little-known companies with overly hyped marketing, aggressive underwriters, and little more than vaporware. To say I'm jaded would be an understatement.
But I ran across something recently that positively made my mouth drop.
We already know about 3D printing. It's all the rage right now, because you can buy a printer for a few thousand bucks and cook up whatever your computer can plot.
But 4D printing?
I don't know whether to be terrified or excited as all hell about this.
Probably a little of both…
"Machines that Assemble Themselves"
3D printing, itself a fairly new technology, has quickly found a host of different applications, ranging from the fun, to the artistic, to the highly practical. Websites like Thingiverse.com and Shapeways.com have sprung up, with collaborators contributing all sorts of interesting stuff. So far we've seen plastic toys, parts, and some utility tools.
Companies are well on their way to creating 3D applications for a variety of industries, including consumer products, aerospace, architecture, and manufacturing. Practical uses include concept modeling and functional prototyping.
Some more aggressive individuals are already pushing the limits of this technology to make firearms, which are obviously highly controversial. There are also a number of really innovative biotech firms making – for lack of a better term – "living lattice" to replace ears and noses using tissue that's effectively grown around a printable 3D structure.
4D printing is the kind of stuff that Skynet – the self-aware computer at the center of the famous Terminator franchise – would recognize.
Professor Anna Balazs, the Robert v.d. Luft Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh's Swanson School of Engineering, describes 4D as "adaptive, biomimetic composites that reprogram their shape, properties or functionality on demand based upon external stimuli."
In plain English, she's talking about camouflage that changes based on its surroundings. Self-adaptive coatings that immediately heal inanimate objects or protect people when the material detects a threat. Submarines that hide based on the water they're traveling through. Airplanes that can change themselves based on what they're carrying and where they're flying.
Or, machines that assemble themselves and manufacturing that can take a pile of parts without human intervention and transform them into everything from bridges to beer bottles.
Imagine, for example, the Hoover Dam building itself or the Golden Gate Bridge coming to fruition without a single human laborer lifting so much as a rivet.
Non-military uses could include protective paint that immediately erases graffiti as Hollywood envisioned in the Sylvester Stallone film, Demolition Man.
The potential medical uses are simply mind-boggling. Imagine what doctors could do with implantable materials that alter based on a heart patient's needs or a burn victim's healing process. If they can alter materials on their own, integrating that with living tissue is not far away.
And the military, naturally, is exceptionally interested, judging from the $855,000 joint research contract the U.S. Army Research Office recently awarded to Harvard University, the University of Illinois, and the University of Pittsburgh. Bear in mind, this is on top of the tens of millions they've already spent on nanotechnology where self-assembly already exists.
To date, 4D printing is confined to some neat, "gee-whiz!" stuff, like a long strand of material that when exposed to water transforms itself into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's moniker, MIT.
The real magic – and the real money – is going to come from the commercialization of whatever scientists develop in the next few years. It will eliminate the brute-force manufacturing techniques of today and enable an entirely new class of companies. In the process, it will change the role of labor and the consumption of energy on a truly global scale.
What's most interesting to me, though, is that we're talking about self-intelligent materials that are able to change shape, change properties, and even compute outside the silicon constraints we live with today.
How to Invest in 4D Printing
According to MIT computer scientist Skylar Tibbits, who heads the institution's self-assembly technologies lab, there are two segments holding the most immediate-term potential: extreme environments and large-scale infrastructure.
About the Author
Keith is a seasoned market analyst and professional trader with more than 37 years of global experience. He is one of very few experts to correctly see both the dot.bomb crisis and the ongoing financial crisis coming ahead of time - and one of even fewer to help millions of investors around the world successfully navigate them both. Forbes hailed him as a "Market Visionary." He is a regular on FOX Business News and Yahoo! Finance, and his observations have been featured in Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, WIRED, and MarketWatch. Keith previously led The Money Map Report, Money Map's flagship newsletter, as Chief Investment Strategist, from 20007 to 2020. Keith holds a BS in management and finance from Skidmore College and an MS in international finance (with a focus on Japanese business science) from Chaminade University. He regularly travels the world in search of investment opportunities others don't yet see or understand.