MIT Self-Assembly Lab: Might Your 4D Smartphone One Day Build Itself?


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self-assemblyOne must wonder what Alexander Graham Bell would think today. While he was credited with the invention of the telephone, it’s hard to decide who to give credit to first for the entire culture that’s been created around this communication device that has certainly evolved in shape and usage. We may have a love/hate relationship with the phone, but most of us are simply lost without it. From serious businessmen to bubbly teenagers, few are immune to the tether of this device, although it’s an invisible one today, with the curly cords of the landline long gone—and the rotary phones of our great-grandparents now relegated to the memes category titled ‘who remembers these?’

Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell

Yes, Alexander, I would say your idea was a big hit; in fact, there are people in this world who will skimp on the grocery bill just to keep their phones lit up. And while we’re all toting devices of one sort or another, with many of us undeniably living in sensory and screen overload, critics abound, living to make us anxious about how our families are deteriorating, children’s brains are turning to mush as they are nursed on the teat of technology, and we’re losing sight of nature. Some of that may be true of course, but if we threw the smartphones and the tablets in the trash today, certainly something even shinier and more distracting would fall into our hands tomorrow.

Even the scientists at MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab have been distracted from their usual elevated work in architecture to travel down that dubious path said to lead to the smoothest connections and most awesome apps; and in fact, they’ve come up with an entirely new idea for the phone. It may also be a way to say goodbye to a number of factory jobs in the future, but for now we’re just looking at a concept that allows for much greater self-sustainability in communication, and actually building your own hardware and accompanying features.

Offering the phone of the future, able to build itself, we are witnessing the expertise of the MIT Self-Assembly Lab as it carries over from architecture, discarding today’s modular designs and inviting in 4D technology. An obvious extension of 3D printing, this is an even newer realm we discuss quite often, whether exploring impacts in meteorology or nanotechnology. While it may seem a bit hard to grasp at first, this next dimension in technology merely offers materials that are more able to adapt to their surroundings, imbued with an intuitive nature by their human makers. Already a ‘thing,’ the 4D printing industry is only expected to progress further, accentuating the 3D marketplace, projecting revenues in the hundreds of billions for the next decade.


As for 4D relevance in the smartphone design, these scientists are expanding on the works of other well-known designers like Marcelo Coelho, always pushing the limits in programmable materials and digital art, as well as David Mellis, who open-sourced a DIY cell phone previously. Skylar Tibbits is a research scientist at the Self-Assembly Lab definitely leading the way, and actually collaborating with Coelho in creating some very new methods for manufacturing of materials and consumer goods such as electronics and smartphones.

“If you look at how things are manufactured at every other scale other than the human scale—look at DNA and cells and proteins, then look at the planetary scale—everything is built through self assembly,” says Tibbits. “But at the human scale, it’s the opposite. Everything is built top down. We take components and we force them together.”

Collaborating with DARPA also (another agency we reported on recently regarding their concept for homes made out of biomaterials), both Tibbits and Self-Assembly Lab co-director Jared Laucks have been instrumental in working toward this idea of technology that can put itself together—not unlike other concepts we’ve seen such as robots that will one day just walk right off the 3D printer ready to do your bidding.

David Mellis created the DIY cellphone kit in 2013 and was responsible for sparking off the original inspiration as Tibbits and other researchers saw what he was doing in term of digital fabrication and an open-source design. They of course were motivated to figure out a way to apply this to their own budding concepts. Their thoughts went something like this:

“What are the components of this, and how can we make it assemble itself?” said Tibbits.

This is a very simple idea that Tibbits and his peers are putting forth to the public so far, in essence putting the parts into a container, shaking them up, and coming out with a new technological and electronic design. Their prototype is made of six different parts that can at this point being spun into two different phones when tossed all together until all of the magnetic parts click in place. The magnets are obviously a strong focus in the design, as they allow for the random parts to connect—and in less than a minute.

“Right now the phone is predetermined, and we’re using this process to assemble that phone,” says Tibbits. “But imagine you take a circuit board and you have different logical building blocks and those logical building blocks can be tumbled around—you can have different functionalities.”

If we often think of 3D technology as magic, this new concept certainly sounds like magical thinking altogether. Perhaps not something we’ll believe until we really see it in action, the idea of magnetized smartphone bits spinning about in a centrifuge and then coming together as technology that’s better than before seems like a concept that may have a way to go.

“Essentially the holy grail is [that] you want complete design freedom,” Tibbits says. “So whatever you want to design or make, you have complete freedom in that space with the minimum number of unique components. We’re just scratching the surface.”

In the meantime, however, I think we can all agree we’ll be able to wait patiently while TIbbits and his team produce a functional product ready for market. For now, we’re pretty full up with enough phones and enough apps to last a lifetime. Self-sustainability certainly sounds enticing in this case though—and while we’re doing magic tricks–perhaps these scientists could find a way to make our massive phone bills disappear! For now, if you’d like to find out a little more about 4D technology, check out more from Tibbits in the TED Talks series excerpt below. Discuss further over in the 4D Self-Building Smartphones forum at

[Sources: The Inquirer; Fast Company Design; MIT Self Assembly Lab / Phone images and videos: Fast Company Design ]

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