MIT’s Self Assembly Lab is one of the research institutes at the forefront of self-assembly technology – technology that can build itself with a few basic parts.
Most recently, the lab has successfully taught mobile phones to build themselves. But the technology of self-assembly has potential that reaches much further than cellular phones.
"If you look at how things are manufactured at every other scale other than the human scale — look at DNA and cells and proteins, then look at the planetary scale — everything is built through self-assembly," Skylar Tibbits, who runs MIT's Self Assembly Lab, tells Co.Design.
"But at the human scale, it's the opposite. Everything is built top down. We take components and we force them together."
Tibbits started the Self Assembly Lab in 2011. Since then the lab has developed flat-pack furniture that can build itself (above) as well as a textile that could be used to manufacture self-lacing sneakers.
In fact, the textile was used by Nike's new Hyperadapt 1.0 self-lacing shoe prototype announced for the 30th anniversary of Back to the Future, although a release date for the sneaker was never announced.
Originally, the lab was established to experiment with “4D printing”. 4D printing uses a 3D printer to print buildable components that can then grow and self-assemble into a range of products.
However taking this technology into the realm of electronics is still very new, which is what makes MIT’s latest development of self-building mobile phones noteworthy.
According to Tibbits, these mobile phones build themselves by churning smaller parts in what looks a lot like a cement mixer. The parts are magnetically-polarised, so as they mix at high speeds (though not high enough to break these components) the correct bits match up, thereby building the phone. The process takes under a minute.
SBS Science spoke to Dr Sabine Hauert, who focuses on designing self-organising swarm nanotechnology at the University of Bristol. She says MIT’s Self Assembly Lab’s developments could make for a more efficient, exciting, and productive future.
“Typical manufacturing techniques require us to build objects one by one, step by step. Self-assembly is exciting because it allows us to build many objects in parallel. This could lead to an increase in productivity for industry.”
Self-assembly harnesses the self-engineering we see in nature, says Hauert. Taking note of how nature builds itself from smaller building blocks could lead to “new smart materials for applications ranging from nanomedicine to architecture.” The possibilities are endless, she says.
“In theory, you could build anything, but there is still a lot of research to be done to understand the basics of self-assembly of functional products.”
"The challenge is no longer to assemble the parts, but to engineer these parts in a clever way so that they self-assemble just right."