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4D Self-Assembly: Easy Construction using Smart Geometrics

Designers and scientists from the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT are working on ways to reconfigure how we design, assemble and autocorrect structures in our everyday world; from microscopic tools all the way up to towering commercial infrastructures.

Consider a small, seemingly solid 3-dimensional object: give it a hard shake and it falls apart, exposing the many simple pieces that compose it. Shake it randomly and the pieces quickly reassemble. No instruction manual, no screws and no headache! Self-assembly creates a fourth dimension of construction: the three physical dimensions of space plus an added dimension of movement through time.

By using the geometric and physical properties of certain materials, the goal of the Self-Assembly Lab is to program structures to self assemble with minimal external interaction. In other words, scientists are working on creating structures that are geometrically designed to fit together in a certain way when you apply an external, passive force. These simple forces include vibration, heat, gravity, or physical interactions that cause the object to come to life and transform into a new orientation.

One application that MIT is actively pursuing is with Geosyntec, which includes adaptive underground piping. The pipes are designed to expand and contract to regulate the flow of water, or even inexpensively pump water. Other applications of these 4D structures include interactive commercial spaces, self-assembly toys and even the ability to build in extreme environments such as outer space.

By eliminating human error and the confusion of complex instructions, these self-assembling structures make complex designs more tangible and construction more accessible to the dynamic creators inside of us.

Photo courtesy of SJET @ MIT

Keara Wright

Aspiring creative author and astrophysicist, with degrees in Physics, Mathematics, and Psychology.

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