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Exploring the future of making things

Introducing the Self-Assembly Lab at SA+P
The Self-Assembly Line installation at TED Long Beach 2012
The Self-Assembly Line installation at TED Long Beach 2012
Photo: Skylar Tibbits | The Self-Assembly Lab, MIT Arthur Olson | Molecular Graphics Lab | The Scripps Research Institute

Imagine a world in which large-scale man-made structures could assemble themselves, reconfigure themselves or even change their material properties.

Architecture alum and lecturer Skylar Tibbits (SM ‘10, Design Computation; SM ‘10, Computer Science) is working on bringing that world about by developing ‘smart’ components that translate natural molecular processes and computational processes into self-assembly technologies for the built environment.

Self-assembly is a process by which disordered parts build an ordered structure entirely on their own, a process Tibbits enables by fabricating objects that can respond to various energy sources to change themselves over time. To formalize this line of inquiry, he recently established the Self-Assembly Lab at SA+P.

The increasing complexity of our built environment — buildings, machines, computers and almost everything else — is creating exponential growth in the intricacy of construction. A skyscraper involves up to a million parts and takes more than two years to assemble; a spaceship involves 2.5 million parts and takes five years to assemble.
But in the world of natural systems, there are proteins with two million types that can reconfigure in 10,000 nanoseconds. And DNA with three billion base pairs that can replicate in roughly an hour. All with far more efficiency than anything we can build, and with virtually no mistakes.

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