Reprogrammable materials selectively self-assemble
While automated manufacturing is ubiquitous today, it was once a nascent field birthed by inventors such as Oliver Evans, who is credited with creating the first fully automated industrial process, in flour mill he built and gradually automated in the late 1700s. The processes for creating automated structures or machines are still very top-down, requiring humans, factories, or robots to do the assembling and making.
However, the way nature does assembly is ubiquitously bottom-up; animals and plants are self-assembled at a cellular level, relying on proteins to self-fold into target geometries that encode all the different functions that keep us ticking. For a more bio-inspired, bottom-up approach to assembly, then, human-architected materials need to do better on their own. Making them scalable, selective, and reprogrammable in a way that could mimic nature’s versatility means some teething problems, though.
Now, researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have attempted to get over these growing pains with a new method: introducing magnetically reprogrammable materials that they coat different parts with—like robotic cubes—to let them self-assemble. Key to their process is a way to make these magnetic programs highly selective about what they connect with, enabling robust self-assembly into specific shapes and chosen configurations.