2.5D < 3D < 4D < 5D printing: the five dimensions of 3D printing, explained.

By the 08/31/2016 in 3D Printers, Column
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Have you ever wondered what is 4D printing?  How does 5D printing work? Is 2.5D printing really a thing?
No more stress, we got you covered. We were also intrigued by these insane buzzwords. Maybe we were missing out on the next big things in our industry? So we decided to take some time to clarify these crazy terms and break down all the dimensions of 3D printing into simple concepts.

From the classic 2D inkjet printing to the futuristic 4D printing and the puzzling 5D printing (is it like Interstellar’s famous Tesseract, as pictured above, but in a 3D printer?!), we have investigated all the dimensions of additive manufacturing technologies and summarized our findings. Next time someone casually mentions that 4D printing will change the way we cure diseases, you’ll know what they mean. And you will also know the truth behind what is 5D printing (spoiler: there is NO fifth dimension in 5D printing😑).


This one is pretty straightforward, it’s the good old desktop printer, where ink is deposited on a paper sheet by a printer connected to a computer. This type of printing is not really called “2D printing” but rather “laser printing” or “inkjet printing”. As Wikipedia explains: “The two most common printer mechanisms are black and white laser printers used for common documents, and color inkjet printers which can produce high quality photograph outputs”.

Over the past months, we’ve observed a trend with major traditional “2D printing” companies moving into 3D printing. The most notable are HP, along with Japanese giants Canon and Ricoh.


That’s an interesting one. We discovered it for the first time during our visit at the Tokyo DMS Expo, on the Casio booth. The Japanese brand, well-known for its famous watches, is exploring a new print technology, called 2.5D printing. As its name suggests, this print technology lies somewhere between 2D and 3D printing. The 2.5D printing technology adds a tactile dimension to 2D printing, allowing users to touch and feel the surface and texture of the printed object. Think of it as a kind of low-relief printing. This technology is called 2.5D because it adds a small vertical dimension to two dimensions of classic 2D printing with the surface printed in relief of a few centimeters high on the Z axis (vertical).

The 2.5D printer by Casio at the Tokyo DMS Expo 2016.

The 2.5D printer by Casio at the Tokyo DMS Expo 2016.

Canon also has been exploring 2.5D printing, referred to as “textural printing” or “elevated printing”, through various projects notably the Project Eiger. The 2.5D technology used by Canon was originally developed by Océ, a Dutch manufacturer of professional printing solutions, acquired by Canon in 2010. The 2.5D printing technology can be used to make objects such as paintings accessible for visually impaired people, who can touch and feel the surface of the painting printed in 2.5D and experience it through its relief and textures:


You probably already at least heard about 3D printing, a technology also known as additive manufacturing. 3D printing refers to the process of manufacturing physical objects from digital files (also called 3D models), using a 3D printer.

Carl Deckard and his prototype of 3D printer in 1984.

Carl Deckard and his prototype of 3D printer in 1984.

An interesting fact about 3D printing is that despite the fairly recent hype it has enjoyed, it’s been around for more than 30 years. It is generally agreed that the first 3D printer was developed by Carl Deckard or Chuck Hull in 1984, as stated on Wikipedia: “in 1984, Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Corporation developed a prototype system based on a process known as stereolithography, in which layers are added by curing photopolymers with ultraviolet light lasers”.

If you’re interested in exploring and comparing 3D printers, you can use our 3D printers comparison engine, the most comprehensive and reliable on the market. You can also check this great infographic made by 3D Hubs and recapping all the existing 3D printing technologies and their specificities.


The fourth dimensions in 3D printing.

The fourth dimensions in 3D printing.

4D printing is 3D printing with an additional dimension: time. Basically, objects created with 4D printing evolve with time. For instance, the shape of 4D printed objects can change over time under the influence of external stimuli, the same way plants change their shape with variations of sunlight, temperature or humidity. Imagine a cardboard box which can fold itself after being used for example.

A 4D printed object can change shape with time and external stimuli.

A 4D printed object can change shape with time and external stimuli


The concept of 4D printing was first introduced by MIT professor Skylar Tiddbits, and today several labs are exploring this technology and pushing its boundaries, especially with the use of advanced printing materials able to evolve with time and other triggers. Researchers at MIT are experimenting with shape-memory polymers materials to 3D print “flexible devices which “remember” their original shapes and can transform accordingly” (source). This technology of 4D printing could have many applications, for example it could be used to create drug delivery devices that would only release medicine at the sign of a fever, using the body temperature as the trigger.

It is quite difficult to predict which applications of 4D printing will gain traction first but there is no doubt this technology, still in its infancy stage, will drive a lot of the sector’s innovations and investments in the years to come. You can read about some interesting applications scenari in this article on All3DP.

4D printing in the 2016 Gartner hype cycle of emerging technologies.

4D printing in the 2016 Gartner hype cycle of emerging technologies.


The name of this technology is quite misleading, since 5D printing does not refers to the addition of a fifth dimension of printing. 5D printing refers to 3D printing using a 5-axis 3D printer, instead of the 3 axis used in conventional 3D printing. Five-axis additive manufacturing essentially builds the object from multiple directions, thus producing stronger parts than regular 3D printing.

5-axis 3D printer.

5-axis 3D printer.

In conventional 3D printing, the objects is created by the addition of horizontal layers deposited on top of each others. With 5D printing, or 5-axis printing, the print bed is capable of moving back and forth on 2 axis in addition to the X, Y and Z axis of the 3D printer, hence the total number of 5 axis. 

This 5D printing technique has been pioneered by William Yerazunis, the senior principal research scientist at the Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs.

5D printing definitely made for great clickbait headlines when a few months back, several 3D printing new outlets started riding the 5D printing wave. We had high expectations about the fifth dimension of 3D printing and we were a bit disappointed but 5 axis printing is nonetheless a promising additive manufacturing technique.