Scientists at MIT dream of autonomous assembly lines that are free of machinery, human intervention, or fossil fuel expenditure—and still run 24/7.
Researchers at the Self-Assembly Lab recently debuted a chair that assembled itself in a water tank over a period of seven hours. Each of the six component parts is embedded with a magnet and like an enzyme or jigsaw piece, each one has a unique connection point for hooking on to the others, thus dictating the final form.
The assembly process, however, is anything but controlled. Fans at the bottom of the tank generate turbulence in the water, jostling the pieces and encouraging a series of trial-and-error collisions which eventually sees complementary pieces latch onto one another. “At close proximity, each piece should easily connect with its corresponding component but never with another one,” Bailey Zuniga, a student who led the research, told Wired. Self-assembly means finding a balance between randomness and control. One ultimate goal is self-repairing infrastructure, but too much leeway could make it very difficult to achieve a desired final form.
Before vowing to never shell out another extortionate check for furniture delivery and installation, note that the chair is a mere six inches tall. A human-sized chair is in the pipeline as part of the Fluid Assembly Furniture project led by Skylar Tibbit. At present, the team is amassing quantitative data to better understand material properties and why certain shapes work better than others. “Finding a way to make the pieces more interchangeable would increase the chances of the pieces finding their matches,” said Zuniga. Other recent forays into self-assembling modules is the Aerial Assemblies project, in which 36-inch helium-filled balloons with fiberglass frames self-configure into a structural lattice in mid-air.