New potential for materials

Written by | Innovation, Lista 1

New potential for materials

For years, Skylar Tibbits and Jared Laucks, co-directors of the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT, have been conducting research on 4D printing and programmable materials. Tibbits talks to Daniele Belleri about how new materials will allow companies to devise intelligent products and production processes.

Daniele Belleri: What is your research approach when it comes to materials?
Skylar Tibbits: Our work is at the intersection of computer science and physical materials.
We aim to reimage construction, manufacturing and production by assembling new capabilities for materials. We work on three different research agendas: self-assembly, programmable materials and granular jamming (a process by which disordered materials can reversibly switch between liquid, solid and semi-solid states).

DB: What these agendas seem to have in common is the promotion of a paradigm of responsiveness in architecture and design, is that correct?
ST: Responsiveness is interesting as it challenges the notion of robotics and it helps us to define how smart materials can be. We want to show that materials can be robots without external devices. Materials can be tools that sense the environment and produce some kind of response to it. Any material can become a smart one.
We are currently able to develop new capabilities for any existent material, such as plastic, leather or textile.

DB: How did you arrive at concepts such as “4D-printing” and “programmable materials”?
ST: It all started by looking at the principle of self-assembly, which is about independent parts that come together on their own without human or machine guidance. Independent components connect and they find their structure and their functionalities. This is the amazing phenomenon on which all of life is built. Just look at how biological structures work. As for the 4D-printing, the idea is to use multi-material printing to produce customisable smart materials that are able to transform, change shape or properties over time. The reason we say “4D” is because we add the element of time to 3D-printing. More recently, we’ve got to a much broader category called “programmable materials”. It refers to any material you can programme to sense an environment and have a useful reaction to it. We have three ingredients we always work with: materials and geometry, activation energy, and the way a material transforms.

DB: How do you combine these ingredients to programme and activate materials?
ST: First we look at material properties (flexibility, weight, density) and at the activation energy we could utilise: wood reacts to moisture, metal to temperature, etcetera. When we have a material, we can manipulate its geometry on a micro and macro level in order to have some useful transformation. The geometric structure of the material can result in mechanical properties. 4D-printing is just one of the possibilities we have to programme a material. We also can use other industrial processes.

DB: What impact can programmable materials have on product design and architecture?
ST: Everything right now is static. It could be mechanically active, but realistically it is static. If you look at the chair we are both sitting on, it doesn’t matter if I am sitting on it, or a little baby sits on it. It is the same chair and it is designed to be over-engineered, so it is robust. It is designed to be homogeneous. It is an average chair, neither the best for you nor the best for me. Now, every industry wants smarter products and traditionally they come from devices: robots and computers. We are showing that you can develop smarter products with less: with pure material. Materials enable companies to develop smarter products and new manufacturing processes. We need materials that adjust and adapt to internal and external factors.
This could be useful for many industries, as it is scalable and cheaper. It could be applied to chairs but also to medical devices, clothes, cars, almost everything, at any scal

DB: Can you tell us about your most important work with businesses?
ST: We recently worked with Airbus to create a flexible carbon-fibre material. It was applied to a specific component that can open and close based on temperature and pressure, without any external mechanism or system. Another important collaboration was the one with BAC (Briggs Automotive Company). For one of their supercars we created a rear spoiler that can move up and down, based on the air moisture. In both cases we don’t need complex electronics, sensors or actuators, and the components are lighter and more efficient.

DB: And what about product design?
ST: For the London Design Museum, we realised a shoe, which is a product that usually requires laborious manufacturing as it is made of many components. But by printing on a single textile
a precise two-dimensional pattern, the shape of a shoe can self-transform. We demonstrate a new production method that reduces the complexity and labour required for shoe production while combining different materials for self-forming and adaptive shoes. A similar approach guides the project we did with a company called Wood Skin: a programmable table that allows to minimise furniture shipping volume and avoid the assembly problem. When you open the shipping box, it jumps into the structure of a table, as a pop-up.

DB: When do you expect these projects to go to the market?
ST: We are a research lab. We start asking some questions and investigating and we develop functional prototypes to show that something is possible and we know how it works. We then try to work with collaborators in view of developing specific applications or new concepts. At this point we hand the project over to the company, which takes the product to the market.
It’s difficult to say when this will happen.
Every industry has its own time factor.

DB: What are your next projects?
ST: We are working in the automotive, footwear, furniture and interior design fields. We are scaling up and our experiments are getting larger. We are going from room scale to something bigger. Our idea in the architecture context is that we already have many structures that transform – airports, stadiums, facade systems – but they use always the same numeric, electromechanical mechanisms that are heavy and invasive. We are proposing something completely different such a superlight textile structure that could adapt and move.
Today, we are able to imagine a morphing version of Frei Otto’s Olympic stadium.


Skylar Tibbits
Tibbits was born in Laguna Beach, California in 1985. He graduated in architecture from Philadelphia University. Continuing his education at MIT, he received master’s degrees in design computation and computer science. He is the co-director and founder of MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab housed at the International Design Center. He is the editor-in-chief of the 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing Journal and the founder (2007) of the small multidisciplinary design practice SJET LLC. Tibbits is an assistant professor at MIT’s Department of Architecture, where he teaches graduate and undergraduate design studios. Previously, he worked at a number of design offices including Zaha Hadid Architects, Asymptote Architecture and Point b Design.

Jared Laucks (1985) is a trained designer and fabrication specialist. He is currently a Research Scientist and Co-Director at the Self-Assembly Lab in the Department of Architecture, MIT. He holds a Masters of Science from the MIT Media Lab where he focused on robotic and biological fabrication methods and was instrumental in a number of projects including the Silk Pavilion. He obtained a Bachelor of Architecture with a focus in digital technologies from Philadelphia University. Prior to MIT, Jared practiced at Interface Studio Architects, Theverymany and taught a number of architecture courses. He is a regular studio critic for MIT courses. He continues to develop research and project based work publications and exhibits worldwide.


Daniele Belleri

Born in Brescia, Lombardy in 1985, Belleri is a journalist and communications consultant employed by Carlo Ratti Associati in Turin. He studied at the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design in Moscow.

Last modified: 17 March 2017