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Smart materials | Self assembly

4d printing cropped

In a research laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), futuristic materials are taking shape.

The Self-Assembly Lab conducts research into how we can make materials assemble themselves, or how we can use 4D printing to create pre-programmed materials that behave in predictable ways.

For example, the lab – which employs scientists and designers across multiple industries, like computer science and mechanical engineering – is involved in creating pre-programmed shoes. Material with a specific pattern is printed onto a stretched fabric, and released. The material then folds itself into the shape of a shoe, with no human intervention.

Skylar tibbits cropped

Skylar tibbits cropped

Tibbits: 4D printing pioneer

The lab has also created a self-assembling replica of the polio virus (not to scale), which forms itself correctly from separate parts when its container is randomly shaken.

It is pretty mind-bending stuff. But what are the implications for the civil engineering sector?

At the head of the lab sits Skylar Tibbits, its co-director and founder. He is an architect, designer and big thinker about how these smart materials can change the way we live.

Self assembling materials

He explains that the lab focuses on several key projects, one being self-assembling materials. This encompasses materials which assemble themselves into shapes without human or machine help, like the model polio virus.

Another is programmable materials, which is where materials transform – rather than build – themselves into pre-programmed shapes.

Materials like wood chip or timber waste, plastic or metal are printed with specific patterns. An energy is added – for example moisture for wood, temperature for metal – and the material behaves in a predictable way to create a predictable shape.

The ones who are innovating and funding research are not coming from infrastructure and construction

The impact on the construction industry could be huge. Although Tibbits sees self-assembling materials as being more useful for manufacturing industries where a part must be replicated over and over, the technology could be used where it is currently difficult to get machinery in to build – in dense urban areas, for example, or environments which are difficult for people to reach.

It could even be used in outer space. The idea of having separate component parts which can come together and assemble themselves without assistance from people or plant is incredibly exciting.

Programmable materials

Use of self assembly technology in construction is still years away. What is much closer to reality, is the use of programmable materials.

The research in this field is applicable to any industry wanting to make smart things – smart shoes, smart cars, smart planes, and smart construction materials are all possible.

Tibbits explains that we tend to move towards electro-mechanical solutions when we think of smart materials. But the research shows that we don’t have to.

The ones who are innovating and funding research are not coming from infrastructure and construction

“You can make smart components without robotics, without extra cost, without extra assembly time,” he says.

“All the things that make something quote-unquote ‘smart’, you can do it with materials themselves.”

As he explains, with programmable materials, sensors are unnecessary because the material itself acts as the sensor.

Activation energy

“All materials are active in some way or another, based on some activation energy,” he explains. “Moisture activates wood; the wood swells, and wood transforms on its own anyway.”

By printing, or through any other industrial process like bonding or weaving, researchers can create a material with a particular shape which can then be transformed when activated by the energy.

So the material is smart; it has the capability to have logic, and to sense things.

“It’s basically like printing robots, but no wires, no motors, no traditional means of robotics,” he says.

Construction potential

It is all very exciting stuff, and has real potential for the construction industry, as Tibbits knows himself.

Back in 2013, he gave a TED talk on this exciting new research. During the talk he touched on the possibility of creating adaptive water pipes which could self-regulate water flow by expanding and contracting.

New Civil Engineer asked Tibbits whether there had been any significant breakthroughs with this idea.

“Nah, it hasn’t gone anywhere,” he says. “It was an interesting initial experiment, but most of our work now has been in aviation, and automotive, furniture, shoes, consumer products.”

Although the project is continuing, it has not been the lab’s main focus as other projects have drawn its attention.

Disruption potential

It seems a shame when the technology has the potential to disrupt the industry – which is currently missing out on materials with the potential to self-repair, transform themselves, and make construction easier and more precise – in such a positive way.

“Unfortunately the infrastructure and construction sector doesn’t have the same funding or incentive to innovate as the rest of the industries,” he says.

“It’s quite depressing that the ones who are innovating and funding research are not coming from infrastructure and construction. They’re coming from biomedical, aviation, aerospace, automotive.”

Research funding

The Self-Assembly Lab is all industry funded. But with the wide-ranging implications for construction, why are companies not eager to test the applications of this new technology?

“The behaviour is sort of ‘wait and see’, and then, ‘oh, our infrastructure failed so replace it with more or less the same thing we had before,’” he says. “Instead of trying to incentivise – or even be interested in – innovating on new forms of infrastructure that could be more resilient and highly adaptive, transformative, we have fixed, static, outdated infrastructure that we replace with fixed, static, new infrastructure.”

Without an appetite for new ways of working, it appears that nothing will change. Tibbits paints a grim picture of an industry unwilling to break its habits.

Status quo

“It seems to be that it’s sort of a legacy industry, it’s like ‘we do things the way we used to do things and let’s keep it at that.’”

Although the industry’s cautiousness could be seen as frustrating, Tibbits insists that industry is not afraid of the new technology. But it has other barriers to innovation.

“I just don’t see the incentive there. If you own a construction company, what’s your incentive to innovate?”

Tight regulations are a problem, and the construction industry is wrapped up in important safety measures. Innovation is risky, and it comes with a high price tag. Litigation is also a concern.

You can make smart components without robotics, without extra cost, without extra assembly time

But the aviation industry faces these challenges too, and yet the Self-Assembly Lab has conducted research in collaboration with aircraft manufacturer Airbus. Researchers looked at the idea of a jet engine component, which originally needed a mechanical flap to open and close, requiring a complex set of manual controls.

The team at the lab created a programmable piece of carbon fibre that could open and close automatically in response to air pressure or temperature, removing the need for human intervention.

Tibbits points to a difference in culture between the two industries as a reason for their different attitudes – there’s tight competition between few companies in aviation, and production tends to be relatively similar. By contrast, each building or structure is unique in the construction and infrastructure sectors and so breakthroughs using the new technology would tend to happen on a project-by-project basis.

Pockets of forward thinking

He admits it is a generalisation to condemn a whole industry, and points to pockets of forward-thinking practice. Still, there is massive potential for pioneers keen to disrupt traditional construction methods.

“I think there’s a lot of stuff that we could do,” says Tibbits. “But it’s about finding the right partners who are interested in innovating in that space.”

Even if the industry does nothing, Tibbits believes a tipping point will be reached which will force firms out of their comfort zones.

Leaving innovation to others

Research from other industries will eventually trickle down and change the way things are done. But construction and infrastructure companies risk leaving big innovations to others.

And with others already pushing the boundaries, the risk is very real. As Tibbits points out, the lab is busy with research for multiple industries.

“It’s not like, if we don’t work on water pipes we’re totally depressed,” he says.

So without a drive from the industry itself, it is likely that smart components for better buildings, self-regulating pipes and self-assembly in outer space remain in the future.

Tibbet’s response when questioned on how far we are from making 4D-printed skyscrapers a reality sums up the issue.

“I don’t know,” he says. “We’re not working on it.”

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