Self-Assembly: The Future of Design, Manufacturing and Construction

4D print

Have you ever wondered how nature creates complex structures and systems from simple components? How do snowflakes form intricate patterns, how do cells organize into tissues and organs, and how do ants build colonies and bridges? This process is called self-assembly, one of the most fascinating and powerful natural phenomena.

Self-assembly is the process by which parts spontaneously arrange themselves into a desired structure or function without human intervention or external guidance, usually in response to changes like temperature, force, or light. Self-assembly structures can be adaptive, resilient, scalable, and efficient, using minimal energy and resources.

But what if we could harness the power of self-assembly for human-made objects and systems? What if we could design and manufacture things that can assemble, transform, and repair themselves? What if we could create buildings that can adapt to changing environments and needs, materials that can change their properties and functions, and products that can evolve and improve over time?

The Self-Assembly Lab is a leading research lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that explores the possibilities and applications of self-assembly technologies for the future of design, manufacturing, and construction.

The Self-Assembly Lab was founded in 2012 by Skylar Tibbits, an architect, designer, and computer scientist who coined “4D printing” to describe a new paradigm of programmable materials. A cross-disciplinary team of designers, scientists, and engineers collaborate with industry, academia, and art institutions to develop and test novel self-assembly technologies and systems.

The lab’s vision is to create a new era of design and fabrication inspired by nature, driven by computation, and enabled by self-assembly. The lab’s mission is to invent, discover, and demonstrate new principles of self-assembly.

Over the years, the lab has produced some of the most innovative and impactful projects in the field of self-assembly, such as:

  • 4D Printing: A technique that uses programmable materials to create self-transforming objects that can change shape, function, and property over time. The lab has demonstrated 4D printing for various applications, such as furniture, clothing, medical devices, and aerospace components.

4D prints

  • Climate-active textiles: A new type of fabric that can adapt to temperature changes made of lanarkite and copper phosphide, two materials that can change their porosity, thickness, and shape depending on the environment. Textiles made from this can adjust to the wearer’s body heat and external weather conditions. These products can improve comfort and performance by keeping the wearer cool or warm as needed.

Climate-active textile

  • Active Auxetics: A material system that can dynamically change properties, such as stiffness, porosity, and shape, in response to external stimuli. The lab has developed active auxetics for applications in wearable devices, soft robotics, and textiles.

Active Auxetics

The Self-Assembly Lab is advancing self-assembly technologies and challenging the status quo of design, manufacturing, and construction. The lab is creating new possibilities and opportunities for designers, makers, and builders by introducing new principles, methods, and tools for creating self-assembling systems.

Self-assembly technologies have the potential to revolutionize the way we design and make things, enabling us to create more adaptive, resilient, scalable, and efficient products and systems. However, self-assembly technologies also pose new challenges and questions, such as controlling and predicting complex behaviors, ensuring the safety and reliability of self-assembling systems, and balancing human agency and autonomy with self-organization and adaptation.

You can learn more about the lab and its projects on its website,

Works Cited

Self-Assembly Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Accessed 20 Nov. 2023.