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[Premiere] MIT Made a Chair That Builds Itself

We talked to MIT Self-Assembly Lab Director Skylar Tibbits about how "evolutionary fabrication" could radically change how things are made.

by Beckett Mufson
Jan 6 2015, 5:35pm

Fluid Assembly: Chair Test, Self-Assembly Lab, MIT + Arthur Olson + Autodesk Inc. Project Leads: Baily Zuniga, Carrie McKnelly, Athina Papadopoulou, Christophe Guberan, Chris Martin, Hannarae Annie Nam, Skylar Tibbits. Images courtesy the artists.

A chair that builds itself sounds like an invention straight out of The Jetsons or Woody Allen’s tongue-in-cheek sci-fi satire Sleeper, not unlike the latter film's tooth brushing robot or in-car escape pod. MIT researchers, however, have created just that: a squat, white chair that assembles itself solely on the power of water currents and small magnets, and it may very well change the way we build things.

Designed to harness energy from natural forces to construct organized, sturdy structures, the small piece of furniture entitled Fluid Assembly: Chair Test is the most recent development in an ongoing collaboration between MIT's Self-Assembly Lab, digital design software group Autodesk, and molecular biologist Arthur Olson. At December’s Biofabricate Summit in New York City, director Skylar Tibbits showcased Chair Test and two other in-progress projects, including a wind-powered construction system called Aerial Assemblies, and another collaboration with Autodesk and Olson called Fluid Crystallization: Cubic, to fully explain the concept of self-assembly.

Fluid Crystallization, Self-Assembly Lab, MIT, Arthur Olson, Autodesk Inc., International Design Center, MIT

A self-assembling object, Tibbits says, is a group of “individual parts that come together on their own to make precise structures.” Alongside 4D printing, Chair Test represents a huge part the Self-Assembly Lab’s exploration.

One long-term goal of these experiments, Tibbits told The Creators Project, is to develop a construction process that needs neither machine nor human intervention, burns no fossil fuels, requires no extra energy, can run 24/7, and is optimal for situations that pose a lot of problems for existing technologies. Things like disaster relief, construction in space, or assembly of micro- and macrostructures are possible applications for the products the Self-Assembly Lab is planning.

"We are also interested in a future scenario of 'evolutionary fabrication' whereby materials can self-organize into optimal configurations based on the dynamics of the system," Tibbits explained. Where modern manufacturing processes involve designing a printer, mill, or cutter to make specific objects, evolutionary fabrication costs little in terms of energy input, and the natural system would design job-optimized objects itself. Aerial Assemblies is one such example of this process: depending on the wind conditions and physical environment, the invention's best shape will take form. Then, "After the helium fades and the modules touch-down, the assembled lightweight structural lattices will remain," said Tibbits.

Aerial Assembly, Self-Assembly Lab, MIT

While the Self-Assembly lab's work can draw all sorts of reactions, Tibbits is quick to point out that self-assembling structures aren't exactly rare—they're present in lots of microscopic structures including viruses and the types of crystals that inspired Fluid Crystalization. On a human scale, however, they're almost unheard of, which is why developing sustainable, practical uses for these materials is still far on the horizon.

That's fine with Tibbits, though—he's in it for the long haul. "Its important that we don't start out by saying, 'We're going to solve X,Y, Z problems,' because I think that leads to incremental development, rather than radical development," he said. "We try to push ourselves to do the most insane things possible, and then when people come to us we think about what we've done before that could be applicable to that."

Fluid Crystallization, Self-Assembly Lab, MIT, Arthur Olson, Autodesk Inc., International Design Center, MIT

Fluid Assembly: Chair, Self-Assembly Lab, MIT + Arthur Olson + Autodesk Inc.

Fluid Assembly: Chair, Self-Assembly Lab, MIT + Arthur Olson + Autodesk Inc.

Visit the Self-Assembly Lab here to see more of MIT's discipline-defying experiments.

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