MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, led by Skylar Tibbits, is on the bleeding edge of smart material research, pioneering efforts in self-assembling materials and components as well as programmable materials. From the Self-Assembly Lab website:
“Self-Assembly is a process by which disordered parts build an ordered structure through only local interaction. In self-assembling systems, individual parts move towards a final state, wheras in self-organizing systems, components move between multiple states, oscillate and may never come to rest in a final configuration.”
“Programmable Matter is the science, engineering and design of physical matter that has the ability to change form and/or function in a programmable fashion. 4D Printing, where the 4th dimension is time, is one recent example of PM that allows objects to be printed and self-transform in shape and material property when submerged in water.“
Both of these concepts are of great interest to us as we explore the relationship of form and time and consider how to design for changing conditions. In addition, these areas of research bridge the gap between our interests in robotics, composites and non-static form in the built environment. The Self-Assembly Lab’s section on Programmable Materials states that their “goal is true material robotics or robots without robots.” To that end they are exploring the following areas, among others, which are particularly relevant to our thesis development.
Programmable Carbon Fiber and Programmable Textiles
In partnership with Autodesk and carbon fiber supplier and material innovator Carbitex, the lab is researching flexible and self-bending carbon fiber fabrics. Carbitex already offers flexible fabrics, but the lab is looking at the possibility of programming this material to bend with the application of energy of some kind (for example, electrical current or heat).
A programmable textile would differ from carbon fiber in that it would offer different strength and rigidity characteristics and might not be able to change shape more than once, for example, after being immersed in water.
As described in the above quote regarding self-assembly, the lab is considering how parts in a system can come together in a specific fashion of their own accord with the simple application of an outside energy source. On some level the idea that such a system results in a “final state” is opposed to the concept of dynamic form, especially if parts are only able to come together in a single configuration. However, if we consider the possibility of a future material that is both self-assembling and programmable, allowing the parts to assume different configurations under different circumstances or stimuli, then the finality of a self-assembling system would simply refer to one of many states that the system can assume. It is in reference to such a possibility that we developed the final animation presented in the formeta 0.9 project.