Skylar Tibbits was constructing a massive museum installation with thousands of pieces. “Imagine yourself facing months on end assembling this thing, thinking there’s got to be a better way.” A designer and architect, Tibbits was accustomed to modeling and fabricating his complex, architecturally sophisticated sculptures with computation. It suddenly struck him: “With all this information that was used to design the structure and communicate with fabrication machines, there’s got to be a way these parts can build themselves.”

This epiphany propelled Tibbits to MIT for dual master’s degrees in computer science, and design and computation, in pursuit of the idea, says Tibbits, “that you could program everything from bits, to atoms, and even large-scale structures.”

Today, Tibbits is breathing life into this vision. A research scientist in the Department of Architecture, and a TED2012 Senior Fellow, Tibbits has launched the Self Assembly Lab, where like-minded engineers, scientists, designers, and architects respond to real-world challenges from industry partners to transform commonplace materials into responsive and reconfigurable building elements, ones that can coalesce on their own to form precise structures. Deploying such novel techniques as 4-D printing in collaboration with Stratasys, a firm at the forefront of three-dimensional modeling, Tibbits is experimenting with new products and processes from the nano- to the human scale.

Although still in its infancy, Tibbits’s research might someday make a profound impact on the built environment. One project, called Logic Matter, encodes simple decision-making in a material, using only that substance’s properties, shape, and geometry. Bricks could be programmed to analyze their own loading conditions or orientation and might contain blueprints to build a wall or guide someone in the construction process. “We don’t have to change what we build with,” says Tibbits. “We take seemingly dumb materials and make them more responsive by combining them in elegant ways with geometry and activation energy.”

Natural processes such as the replication of DNA, protein folding, and the growth of geometrically perfect crystals inspired Tibbits. He discerned that these systems, which build complex structures extremely efficiently, and which can replicate and repair themselves, depend on a common formula: a simple sequence of instructions, programmable parts, energy, and some type of error correction. Mastering this recipe opens up a world of useful applications, believes Tibbits.

One illustrative project underway in Tibbits’s lab may lead to more resilient and efficient infrastructure. He is trying to program peristalsis in water pipes, so they contract and relax like muscles. Unlike current pipes, which tend to break, require constant monitoring and energy input, Tibbits’s pipes can expand and shrink in response to changes in water volume, and could eventually undulate to abet flow. The goal is a “self-regulating system,” one in which pipes could even repair themselves in case of a puncture.

Self-assembling technologies may eventually help build space structures whose components deposit themselves in zero gravity environments without human intervention, and edifices that become more resilient in response to “noisy and potentially dangerous energies” from phenomena like earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis. These ideas may seem like a reach, but “there are structures we can’t build today,” says Tibbits, which demand new approaches. “We must ask where self-assembly can solve some of the world’s biggest challenges.”

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