Things are going fast for the Self-Assembly Lab. In demand, brands like BMW, Steelcase, Airbus, Google, Native, and several others have started collaborations with the Lab; and galleries and museums are enthusiastically hosting exhibitions displaying the exciting results of the Lab’s research. Being something between architects, artists and scientists, the Self-Assembly Lab’s 15-strong team who make this all happen are a mix of artists, designers and architects, including undergraduates, post-grads and PhD students, as well as researchers, scientists, mechanical engineers and computer scientists. For Tibbits, this balance of talents is essential. ‘There is also a very strong technical side to it: coding, machine building, precision, mechanics. Different disciplines come together in our team. It's a good mix of super creative people with a hands-on mentality.’
At the Lab’s research core, as the name spells it out, is self-assembly. This technology would enable robots to repair themselves, constructions sites to grow like gardens, parts of aircrafts to reconfigure on demand, interiors to adapt on their own to environmental demands, and space structures to self-assemble without humans. ‘Self-assembly is the fundamental principle by which biology, chemistry and physics work.’ And it’s how humans grow: the way things are built within our bodies enable them to regrow and repair themselves; this is how our immune system works and how we reproduce. ‘There is no top-down construction in our bodies, it all happens through bottom-up interaction. Yet none of what is man-made has these traits: products are thrown away when they break and they can’t be reproduced.’
The idea is to make these exciting new technologies that require so much research and trial and error affordable: ‘It’s one of our main goals. It doesn’t matter whether it is the printing process, or the programmable materials: we want them to be as inexpensive as traditional systems, or even cheaper.’ The Self-Assembly Lab does so through dedicated choices, as is the case for the printing process: ‘Printing an object on our system is as affordable if not more affordable than with any other printing process because our machine is cheaper than most printers, and the materials we use are off-the-shelf, readily available industrial materials; they’re not specialised 3D printed materials that are expensive and complicated and don’t have the right properties.
Liquid Printed Pneumatics: the result of a collaboration between BMW and MIT's Self-Assembly Lab. Together they designed the first printed inflatable material, which is on display at the V&A in London.
Asked how he thinks the technologies the Lab develops can change the world, he says very soberly: ‘I don’t like to hypothesise about radical futures. It’s more about making it real in the present. Even though it looks like we work on very futuristic things, they’re only interesting to us if we can actually make them real now.’ Still, the innovative technologies the Lab develops have a potential to contribute to solutions for contemporary problems. ‘I’m sure that there are probably ways we can apply them to many challenges like hunger and waste and pollution, and all of those things. We have a project in the Maldives looking at sea-level rise, a new system for islands and sandbars. But you know, for us, there are too many possible applications in a way. Everything relies on having the right partners with the right opportunities to develop technologies in order to solve some of those grand challenges.’
Active Textile, created with Designtex and Steelcase for The Senses: Design Beyond Vision exhibition at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
Liquid Printed Pneumatics, a project by the Self-Assembly Lab and BMW, features in The Future Starts Here, Sainsbury Gallery, V&A Museum, London, until 4 November 2018, and in The Senses: Design Beyond Vision, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, until 28 October