Architect and computer scientist Skylar Tibbits heads up MIT's Self-Assembly Lab, a sort of cross-disciplinary skunkworks that is completely re-thinking how objects are manufactured and assembled. By combining digital manufacturing techniques with the study of how particular materials react to particular types of energy, Tibbits' team seeks to create things that, well, put themselves together—whether large or small—when the appropriate energy is introduced as a catalyst.
Self-Assembly is a process by which disordered parts build an ordered structure through local interaction. We have demonstrated that this phenomenon is scale-independent and can be utilized for self-constructing and manufacturing systems at nearly every scale. We have also identified the key ingredients for self-assembly as a simple set of responsive building blocks, energy and interactions that can be designed within nearly every material and machining process available. Self-assembly promises to enable breakthroughs across every applications of biology, material science, software, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, the arts, and even space exploration. The Self-Assembly Lab is working with academic, commercial, nonprofit, and government partners, collaborators, and sponsors to make our self-assembling future a reality.
The concept sounds difficult to wrap your head around, until you see the video:
Here's a TED Talk Tibbits gave earlier this year going into more detail:
While Tibbits (in partnership with Stratasys) is the best-known pioneer in this field, there has been an interesting development involving others pursuing 4D printing. Stay tuned.