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.