Additive manufacturing and 3D and/or 4D printing of bio-composites

Photo of 3D printer

‘Additive’ manufacturing can harness New Zealand’s natural resources, such biopolymers or plant and wood fibers to create new, more environmentally friendly materials and products.


  • This Spearhead team is at the forefront of developing and combining biopolymers with novel 4D printing technology that could be used to make everything from architectural structures to furniture.
  • The team aims to have at least two 4D product prototypes ready to go by 2025, with applications in mind that will give New Zealand industry a competitive edge.
  • The project has the potential to fuel the bioeconomy and assist Māori to sustainably grow their design manufacturing businesses.


Beyond plastic - harnessing nature’s building blocks

The answer lies in developing customized biopolymers – materials derived from renewable feedstock that can be used for a variety of applications. New Zealand is well-placed to play a leading role in the bioplastics revolution as we have numerous sustainable feedstocks available to us.

We also have a thriving manufacturing sector, which is increasingly experimenting with 3D and 4D printing techniques to use polymers found in nature, such as proteins, cellulose and lignin.

It is this burgeoning opportunity in the sustainable manufacturing sector and the fast-growing Māori economy that the Science for Technological Innovation (SfTI) National Science Challenge is looking to tap into, with the aim of enhancing our export potential and even produce onshore some of the things we currently import.

Additive manufacturing - how does it work?

The new approach to making things involves ‘additive’ manufacturing, which uses industrial printers to add successive layers of material to create an object, based on digital 3D design plans.

It allows for great precision and efficiency in manufacturing. But to date, the range of materials available for use in 3D has been limited. This SfTI Spearhead project aims to change that by 2025, creating new types of biopolymers that are suitable for a wide range of industries and coming up with novel 4D printing technology.

What is 4D printing?

While 4D printing involves the same manufacturing process as 3D printing, it adds an extra dimension – the materials can change shape and form over time after they have been made. They may respond to temperature, humidity, pressure, and even sound in ways that their designers pre-determine.

Developing new materials suitable for printing involves getting to grips with new methods of engineering cellulose, proteins and microfibers that will need to be aligned and layered to create objects.

You can learn more about the team's exploration into the effects of 3D printing on plastic with added cellulose here. Also, watch their 3D printed plastic and cellulose tree stand up when triggered by moisture and temperature changes.

A 3D printed biopolymers and cellulose tree stands up when triggered by moisture and temperature changes.

4D printing with bio-materials

A team of researchers 20 strong, supported by ten students, have laid the groundwork for new concepts and technologies developed in the lab to achieve the project goals and inform separately funded activities. From here, they are developing materials for 4D printing and designing new printers to handle these types of bio-materials. By 2025, the SfTI team plan to have developed at least two 4D printed product prototypes, with a focus on industry applications where New Zealand exports can be generated.

Creating new materials that can serve industrial purposes is one thing. But creating new materials with novel printing techniques and with end-of-life considerations incorporated into product design, adds another layer of complexity.

But this SfTI Spearhead team understands the potential their work has to create a circular bio-economy, where natural materials form the building blocks and smart manufacturing techniques create fit for purpose products across multiple industries.

The researchers are guided by three principles:

  • Nature wastes nothing  – One organism’s waste is another’s food
  • Nature is able to transform – Static is a human concept
  • Nature is an exceptional artist – Structures in nature are inspirational

Nature has the answers. Now our team continues putting nature to work for a more sustainable future.

The team leaders

  • Spearhead co-leader, Professor Kim Pickering  – University of Waikato
  • Spearhead co-leader, Dr Florian Graichen – Scion, Science Leader, Biopolymers and Chemicals

Top image: Photo of 3D printer used to print SfTI logo