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A future of products that assemble themselves?

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is where the brightest people in the world gather to address the toughest challenges facing humanity. So for anyone staring down the barrel of a trip to Ikea, take heart: Help is on the way.

The Self-Assembly Lab at MIT has been posting some fascinating videos to its Vimeo account over the past few months, offering brief glimpses into a wide range of projects that could change the way things are made — by designing them to make themselves.

Under the direction of Skylar Tibbits (whose pair of TED talks on the subject are well worth watching), the lab’s work takes cues from nano-scale biological and chemical systems of self-assembly, but the fruit of its labors can be grown to serve any scale.


Rather than relying on clunky and/or delicate robotics, these experiments take advantage of the transformational potential of precise material, geometric, and kinetic properties; so, heat could trigger a flat sheet to fold itself into a 3-dimensional shape, or water could be used to activate the precise warp of programmable wood, or a system of currents and magnets could coax an assortment of free floating blocks into the form of a chair.

You may experience a little thrill watching that last one in action (as well as some deja vu if you’re familiar with Arthur Ganson’s kinetic sculpture “Cory’s Yellow Chair” at the MIT Museum). It’s inspiring to imagine the world of the future, pulling itself together around us, slipping by design from disorder into coherence.

It will be years still before the lab’s innovations find their places in the real world, but for now they exist in a kind of technological dream state — and honestly, I’d prefer two decades of dreaming to two more hours on the floor with these damn bookshelves.


Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.