Skylar Tibbits’s fluid crystallization project: Self-assembly holds the promise of breakthroughs in many fields. Photo: Len RubensteinIf you talk to many engineers and ask what first piqued their interest in engineering, most will answer playing with LEGOs or Tinker Toys as tots. The ability to tangibly build something and see how it comes to fruition sparks their interest and, at the same time, is play. And this leads to an inquisitive nature well past college years to solve everyday problems by constructing something with their hands (and their knowledge/creativity).

The same is true for architects. Most are infatuated with art, or the ability to sketch a building and see it become a tall skyscraper or building of stature. Even with the field of architecture becoming more digital in nature—with BIM and CAD systems used consistently—there is still an artistic touch to the detail-oriented designs we stare in awe at when we visit New York City, Chicago, Boston or any city known for its architectural history. And new technologies in the field enhance creativity and development.

While engineering and architecture may seem worlds apart to some people, the fact is they can easily go hand-in-hand. And, whether we believe it or not, there is as much artistic presence in engineering and innovation as there is in architecture.

R&D Magazine’s 2015 Innovator of the Year, Skylar Tibbits, knew at young age whatever career path he would embark on would be some creative endeavor. “I knew I would end in a career that dealt with art, as I have various artists in my family and it’s a big part of who I am,” says Tibbits to R&D Magazine. “My grandfather was an architect, and that lead to my appeal towards architecture.”

“At one point I wanted to be an artist or a photographer,” says Tibbits. “But I landed on architecture as my path. Yet, I somehow came full circle to computer science, and now I’m somewhere between an artist, architect and a scientist.”

By coming full circle, Tibbits, now the Director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s Self-Assembly Lab, has hands in both worlds and can see artistic inspiration in his lab’s innovations.

Enhancing 3-D printing, programmable materials through art

Following his artistic passions, Tibbits studied architecture as his undergraduate degree at Philadelphia Univ., with a minor in experimental computation. In 2007, before completing his masters degrees in design computation and computer science at MIT, Tibbits started his own business, SJET LLC as a small design studio and consulting opportunity to help design various projects from art commissions to exhibitions and installations and more.

“I was really drawn to design, but I also had interest in computer science,” says Tibbits. “Yet, what intrigued me the most about architecture was the hands-on nature of the discipline.”

The design fields were one of the first adopters of the well-known additive manufacturing technique 3-D printing. The technology was, and continues to be, mostly used for rapid prototyping of models so architects could see the detail of their grandiose ideas in small-scale models. Architecture as a field is hands-on as designers must create buildings and test their ideas through precise materials and small-scale model prototypes of different proponents.

“Early on, when printing hit the market, architectural offices and schools had availability to some of the first 3-D printing technologies,” says Tibbits. “But I think it goes beyond that.”
To Tibbits 3-D printing technology isn’t just prototyping anymore. Many industries are starting to use printing to increase manufacturing capabilities, and for some it enters the materials science field. It is here where MIT Self-Assembly Lab’s interests lie. 

Tibbits interest in self-assembly and 3-D printing was spurred forth by his work with DARPA during his Master Degree under a Programmable Matter Grant with Neil Gershenfeld’s Center for Bits and Atoms. At the time, most researchers were looking at smaller and smaller robots as capabilities for self-assembly and programmable matter. Ovetime, instead of looking at just robotics for self-assembly, he dived into more materials-based scenarios, where he could combine his interests in design and science. 

Skylar Tibbits, Director of MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab.  Photo: David Sella“What’s most interesting about 3-D printing technology for us at the Self-Assembly Lab is we can mix and match materials of various properties and we can design macroscale materials that have never been created before,” says Tibbits. “We can really customize the materials’ composites to have properties, shapes and qualities that we haven’t seen, with easy ways to control the parameters.”

What Tibbits might be best known for is helping to pioneer 4-D printing technology, along with Stratasys and Autodesk. “Autodesk was interested in the future of design tools and how we can simulate and optimize for self-transformation,” says Tibbits. “And Stratasys was interested in how they could use their 3-D multi-material printers to print active transformations.”
The three organizations collaborated on the project in 2013. 

The project commenced because the Self-Assembly Lab was developing reconfigurable and shape-transforming items for large-scale reconfigurable robotics and architectural installations that required magnets or elastic. These innovations always needed an extra component or motor, as they needed to be manually assembled and they would often break. “If the prototype breaks, you need to replace it, and to do so there’s a whole assembly line that costs a lot of money to control,” says Tibbits. “So, we were trying to find an easier way to make these highly active things.”

“Anyone who has built a robot knows it is a time-consuming feat,” says Tibbits. “And when and if it fails, you need to replace components. So, we figured it would be much easier to print these products or components so they could self-transform on their own with no extra step and no extra components.” Essentially the lab can 3-D print an object and give it life afterwards, adding the fourth dimension of time. 

The resulting 4-D printing technology has many implications in the field of robotics and any application that uses electromechanical devices. And the Self-Assembly Lab is trying to find more elegant solutions with fundamental materials—such as sensors, actuators or logic—that are easier to produce, cheaper and more robust, while creating prototypes or products with less components and in less time.

In 4-D printing Tibbits prints with multiple materials that have different properties. “Some materials we use for structure and precision, and they are predominantly static materials,” says Tibbits.

“And then the other materials we use as the activation or the transformation energy, the way to get from point A to point B.” For these printing purposes, the Self-Assembly Lab uses a hydrogel that swells 150% and soaks moisture. The hydrogel material expands and causes the parts to transform, while the other material that’s static becomes the precision and tells the transforming material when to stop, what angle to fold into or how to transform.

“We didn’t just want to use 3-D printed plastics,” says Tibbits. “Many industries are excited about 3-D printing technologies, but they want to use the materials they typically use to engineer a product.”

The lab calls their broader solution “programmable materials,” or materials that can be programmed to change shape or properties on demand to fit whatever field or application they will be used in.

Programmable materials relate more to what most people call “smart” materials. And while “smart” materials have been around for a bit, these new programmable material capabilities are exciting in the sense that users can fully customize, produce and activate their own smart materials that have shape-memory effects or can transform in shape or color. 

When purchased off-the-shelf, most smart materials today have set shapes and sizes because of their physical properties and they tend to be expensive. Most normal materials, however, don’t do exactly what we want them to, and we need many mechanisms to control them. For example, for electronics and other connectors, you need extra assembly time to put them into products, they likely cost more and often are failure prone.

“A good example is if you want to make a ‘smart’ shoe,” says Tibbits. “The footwear industry has been wanting this for a long time, and it hasn’t been done yet because ‘smart’ materials or robotics are usually more expensive than traditional materials, they take more assembly time, they often fail and they add more components that could be potentially dangerous when putting them in clothing or shoes.”

What the MIT Self-Assembly Lab has developed so far with three materials are ways to easily produce them—whether it’s printing, laminating or ejecting—so they are made with everyday materials or readily accessible materials that have radical new properties—like textiles, rubbers, plastics and composites. 

“They aren’t just off-the-shelf, they can be designed and tuned to do anything that you are interested in having them do,” says Tibbits. “And you can easily produce them without any extra cost or time.”


Just as the lab’s name reflects, self-assembly is the core of the research conducted at the Self-Assembly Lab. “My lab is very cross-disciplinary, it focuses on self-assembly and how large-scale  Credit: Noah Kalinaparticles come together on their own,” says Tibbits. “And this is proposing new possibilities for manufacturing, construction and how we put together anything at the human scale.”

The lab itself collaborates with many different industries, and conducts both applied and basic research. It has worked with everything from large weather balloons that can self-assemble in a courtyard to big 500-gal tanks of water with particles that assemble at different buoyancies and turbulence patterns.

“Self-assembly has obviously been around for a long time given that it’s the fundamental principle by which biology, chemistry and physics happen to work,” says Tibbits. It is essentially the principle by which things come together when there are no humans or machines to assemble them. This is how humans are grown. This is how chemistry works as far as proteins and DNA. And there are many groups studying self-assembly, mostly at the nano- and microscales in biology and chemistry, or materials science for new particle formations or new materials.

MIT Self-Assembly Lab’s main contribution is looking at self-assembly on the macroscale—how large-scale objects (from centimeters to many meters) come together. “At the human scale, most everything we build is from the top-down,” says Tibbits. “Human construction tends to force materials together in the ways we want them with machines or by hand. But we are looking for an alternative to question how large-scale objects can come together in new ways.”

In terms of self-assembly, the lab is looking to see how they can scale-up. “Most people think self-assembly is a small-scale phenomenon, but we have demonstrated it can work at every scale as long as you are highly tuned into the materials, their activation energies and all the different environmental influences at that scale,” says Tibbits. 

According to Tibbits, one project the lab did was with molecular biologist Author Olsen. What the team, including Tibbits, did was a project on glass flasks, where they shook them randomly and the components would break. And even though the components were a bit softer and now random, the components found their way back together at the previous state.

“We made a much larger version of this that assembled furniture pieces that tumbled around in a big tumbler,” says Tibbits. “And we also have big tanks of water looking at crystallization or self-organization where the components come together the same way over and over again.”

The future

Like everyone knows, it’s hard to predict the future. “We really only know a few days out as to where our research is going,” says Tibbits.

Yet, the main mentality of Tibbits and his lab is they will always try to push the field and go further than they possibly thought, exploring the craziest ideas. “Through this you find new fundamental capabilities and you find non-incremental developments,” says Tibbits. “And hopefully this results in relevant applications.”

The lab never tends to start with solving a problem. They never tend to start with a specific application. They just focus on the biggest, deepest, craziest problems and work their way backwards, while keeping one foot in the applied and one foot in the basic spectrum.