Shapeshifting shoes? Liquid support columns? Self-forming car seats? MIT’s Batcave in Cambridge is on it, developing groundbreaking new printing processes and programmable materials that could alter the future of manufacturing.
Those are but a few of the futuristic projects that architect and computer scientist Skylar Tibbits is undertaking at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Self-Assembly Lab, which he founded and co-directs. What Skylar and his team are researching not only has the potential to redefine our relationship with any number of objects in our day-to-day lives, but it could also fundamentally change the way we approach materials and manufacturing.
Could programmable materials solve our complexity complex?
Digital fabrication tools — like the 3D printers, routers and cutters found in some workshops, maker spaces and fab labs — have turned code into the new language of design. Where software has changed what can be designed, digital fabrication has changed what can be manufactured.
As these sophisticated designs and tools allow us to build almost anything, we’re starting to wage an uphill battle of complexity as things become more difficult to make, more expensive, less environmentally friendly and have greater odds of failure simply because they are so complex.
“I always joke that if you have a big problem, you can just throw money and robots at it,” says Skylar. “But we’re questioning [this approach]: How can we eliminate our reliance on power and mechanisms and typical computing? How do we build things with less energy, complexity and failure?”
One answer, he thinks, is to reimagine how we use materials.
’Cause we are living in a material world
In some ways, programmable materials have always been around: wood activates with water, metal activates based on temperature. “And even though we lost much of that [understanding],” Skylar says, “we can bring it back — and go 10-fold — through new digital fabrication techniques and computational software tools.”
The idea is to program physical materials to change shape, property and evolve, adapt or reconfigure over time, Skylar explains. This is what’s known as 4D — and it can be applied to any industrial process.
“4D printing is essentially taking 3D printing and adding the element of time.”
MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab proposes two principles: 1) Even with automation, we should build with better materials — products that transform without batteries and mechanisms. 2) Programmable materials — that is, physical materials that have the ability to change precise form and/or function by design — are actually the future of robots we’re looking for because they’re capable of active sensing, actuation, logic and self-repair.
And now for some cool stuff…
“There are a lot of ways to activate textiles,” Skylar explains. You can stretch, print, bond, spray or weave it to embed a force or activation energy. Then the geometry in the material, in conjunction with its mechanics, will tell the object what to do. Carbon fibre, for instance, has been used to create a self-regulating valve at the top of an Airbus plane engine that can open and close depending on pressure and temperature.
A self-assembling shoe is another of Skylar’s incredible adaptive experiments. As he reminds us, “the shoe industry is almost predominantly manually assembled,” but a single polymer material, stretched and transformed by temperature change, can be created with no assembly required.
Also known as “phase change,” it’s a material system that can reversibly transition from a liquid to a solid and back again, depending on the particle state. You’ve probably seen this with vacuum-packed coffee: it’s solid as a brick, but once the air gets back in, it pours like a liquid.
For their Rock Print installation at the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial, the Self-Assembly Lab collaborated to construct a load-bearing column without the use of adhesives or binding. By depositing small rocks over layers of steel string inside a tall box, the researchers provoked a jamming reaction. When the box was removed, loose rocks fell and the structure was revealed. When the string was removed, the rocks become a loose pile, and voilà! Reversible concrete.
Rapid liquid printing
Sometimes 3D printing just isn’t practical: it takes a long time because you have to wait for it to cure at points, you’re limited by size and you’re constantly fighting gravity. Enter rapid liquid printing.
With rapid liquid printing, the extrusion process takes place in a large vat of gel — the size of the object you want to print is limited only by the size of the vat — and because the object is suspended in the gel, you don’t have to worry about gravity. And when you don’t have to worry about gravity, you don’t have to worry about layering. Thus it can allow furniture, for example, to be printed in minutes.
This process also permits the printing of air- and water-tight inflatable structures with seamless surfaces made of materials that can change both their shape and rigidity. The Self-Assembly Lab recently worked on a project with BMW to create a shape-shifting inflatable that takes different forms (e.g., if made into a car seat, it could assume different positions and comfort levels) depending on the air pressure inside. Eventually, it could lead to dynamic car interiors featuring dashboards that customize for the driver or seats that disappear when not in use.
The future of manufacturing, Skylar believes, will be about collaborating with programmable materials that allow us to produce better parts and products more simply and efficiently.
“Today we will program machines, and tomorrow we will program matter itself.”
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