‘The applications of smart materials are truly infinite,’ says Skylar Tibbits, who as a kid was impressed by his architect grandfather and artists in the family. Tibbits studied architecture, and later design computation and computer science at MIT. It's at MIT’s architecture department he launched the Self-Assembly Lab in 2013. Although Tibbits has all the qualifications and experience, his main drives appear to be common sense and an insatiable curiosity. Even the anecdotal genesis to his interest in self-assembly testifies to this, when as an architecture student he had to endlessly build big mock-ups. The sideways common sense instinct kicked in: ‘We all invest a lot of time and energy in putting things together. It would be much simpler if materials could build themselves.’ A history already waiting to be written?

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.’

4D printing crampon protein, combined
This cross-disciplinary team is working on three kinds of research. ‘There is the self-assembly research, where we develop components that come together on their own, without humans or machines. A second category consists of programmable materials, which relate to what most people call “smart materials”: everyday materials programmed in such a way that users can customise, produce and activate them; these materials can transform in shape or colour. Our 4D printing activities fall under that, as well as our research on programmable carbon fibre. More recently, we also developed liquid‐to‐solid phase change: materials go from liquids to solid, and from solid to liquid. In this third category of research we’ve been examining the possibilities of jamming in architecture and construction, as well as liquid printing.’ It is through such research that the Self-Assembly Lab is reinventing production, construction and products. ‘Today we programme computers and machines, tomorrow we will programme matter itself,’ he announced a couple of years ago.

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.’

Rapid liquid printing, rubber.
The Self-Assembly Lab is also driven by an eagerness to make stuff in ways that people weren’t making before, which is coupled with an ambition to surprise themselves. ‘For me, the most exciting challenge is not to do the same thing ever again. Each time we start something new, we want to do something we couldn’t have imagined was possible.’ The challenges are many: ‘Every day the Lab runs into failures – it’s part of the process since we’re facing complex issues. We always set new goals and we experiment and test and try things, and we fail and discover and are surprised.’ The biggest challenges, however, are the ones that have nothing to do with the Lab, but rather ‘with everything outside of our control, and outside of the technological. Unforeseen challenges in logistics or deliveries, or things about adoption or market demand. Problems we have to solve when the clock is ticking and the pressure is on. Boring stuff like parts manufactured around the world that never arrive on time. A lot of our work is very public, it’s out there exhibited, seen and shown, and we work with partners, which makes it stressful. Those situations are more challenging than how to print something or how to get a material transformed.’

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.

Rapid liquid printing
Rapid liquid printing, extrusion
If you compare our printing process to injection moulding or some other industrial processes, we’re probably a bit slower, but approaching similar time lines. Like, for example, we can print the insoles for a shoe or an orthotic prosthetic in a couple of minutes. That’s approaching the amount of time it would take to inject or mould them.’ It’s the same for the Lab’s programmable materials: it makes simple, inexpensive, readily accessible materials that have new smart properties, and not by using expensive smart materials or robotic components, as is common. ‘In our case it’s just simple textiles – they’re inexpensive, but they have these new properties to transform themselves.’

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





This article appeared in DAM69. Order your personal copy.