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ILP Institute Insider

July 6, 2015
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Programming Materials for Better Designs

We think of the everyday materials we use to build our human world as static, but we can think again: MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab programs these materials to transform themselves to handle tasks more simply and efficiently, thus improving or creating a wide variety of products.
Skylar Tibbits
MIT Self-Assembly Lab Director
Funded by industry collaboration, “the lab focuses on how to bring computer science to our physical world, how to program our physical world to assemble itself and transform on its own,” says Skylar Tibbits, Self-Assembly Lab head and research scientist in the department of architecture.

“Every material responds to some sort of energy source, and every material has properties of stiffness or flexibility or expansion or contraction,” he explains. “We can have customizable smart materials that change shape, change properties or have decision-making. We can combine them in unique ways, so that they can act as sensors, actuators or logic.”

Tibbits gives an example of a project with the aircraft manufacturer Airbus, on a jet engine air inlet that traditionally causes drag during flight. The inlet would require a mechanical flap to open and close, adding weight, components and complex controls. “We developed a piece of carbon fiber that’s completely programmable and can automatically open and close to control the airflow based on temperature, altitude or pressure as the plane leaves the ground and flies,” he says. Such an adaptable component could minimize weight, dispense with the need for a failure-prone electromechanical actuator, and avoid the need for pilots to control it.

Designing for Transformation on Demand
In self-assembly, independent components come together to build a final structure completely on their own, says Tibbits, who points to many illustrations in biology and chemistry.

“We propose that you can use processes of self-assembly for large scale applications like manufacturing or construction where it’s difficult to build things, because of environmental constraints or budget constraints or tolerance constraints,” he says.

One example is construction in space, where working is difficult, there are severe constraints on volume and weight, and there may be important advantages in components that can assemble themselves, Tibbits says. He also points to potential applications in other harsh environments and in components created on very small scales.

Moving Forward with 4D Printing
Another active area of investigation for the lab is “4D printing,” which began two years ago in a collaboration with the 3D printing company Stratasys and the software firm Autodesk to print customizable smart materials.

“Traditional smart materials are exciting but they’re niche materials that come in super-specific packages and sizes, are hard to assemble and are sometimes cost-prohibitive,” Tibbits explains. “So we started printing multimaterials, which change shape or change property to go from one state to another. They go from flat sheets into 3D objects, or they go from strands or fibers into 2D sheets or 3D objects. They really showed that we could customize our smart materials to respond to different energy sources and become different objects in the end.”

After demonstrating the 4D-printing concept, the lab soon found itself pursuing a number of intriguing applications with several companies.

Advancing Everyday Materials
The plastics employed for 4D printing represented a small subset of materials that might be transformed, Tibbits says. That realization led the lab to develop a broad range of everyday materials for applications that go far beyond one-time assembly.

One major class of applications is robotics. “If we look at robotics today, we’re used to massive amounts of metal, sensors, electronics and actuators,” he points out. “We’re interested in streamlining that, and embedding all the capabilities of a robot into a single material that changes shape or property if a certain energy or environmental condition is around. We can have sensors, actuators, decision-making or logic in the material itself. I think the future is not hard industrial machine robotics but robotics that is soft, resilient, adaptive and reconfigurable.”

Programmable materials also will find important roles in making currently static products dynamic, adaptive and reconfigurable, he says.

One example comes from a project with Briggs Automotive to adjust a rear spoiler — a wing on race cars and high-end street cars that can rotate upwards to increase traction on the tires by increasing drag or rotate down to increase aerodynamics. “Let’s say that if it rains, you want to increase traction on the tires,” Tibbits explains. “You can actually transform the wing panels on the car so that when they meet moisture they change and put more traction on the car. When they dry out, they become more aerodynamic and you can go faster.”

Other programmable materials could pay off in improved building environments. “We want materials that transform themselves, depending on sunlight, moisture, humidity levels or sound,” he suggests. “For instance, acoustic panels are static, but the acoustics in the room are completely dynamic. Your acoustic panels could adapt to the noise levels in the room to help amplify the noise or help dampen it.”

Commercializing Collaborations
Self-Assembly Lab researchers may have certain applications in mind as they develop new concepts such as 4D printing. But their first corporate partners may bring quite different ideas. “They’ll say, ‘Can we do it in sportswear?’” Tibbits says. “’Can we do it in the medical space?’”

Industry partnerships work best “when we can actually collaborate to invent the future, to think of something that no one is doing in that space and that can radically change an industry,” he emphasizes. “How can we invent completely game-changing technologies to really challenge and rethink an industry or a product? We then try to team up with our partner and transition that technology out of academia and into industry, where it can meet all of their specific requirements and be developed to become a real-world product.”

“The Self-Assembly Lab oscillates between art, design, science and engineering,” he adds. “We may write a scientific paper and exhibit it in a gallery. Or we may start out with an art exhibition and it becomes a new technology for an industry partner. We’re excited to be on all these different spectrums. Art and design and creative endeavors are just as meaningful and fruitful for the lab as pure science and pure engineering development. We’re comfortable transitioning between any of those.”

Research News

July 7, 2015

CSAIL report: Giving government special access to data poses major security risks

In recent months, government officials in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries have made repeated calls for law-enforcement agencies to be able to access, upon due authorization, encrypted data to help them solve crimes.

Beyond the ethical and political implications of such an approach, though, is a more practical question: If we want to maintain the security of user information, is this sort of access even technically possible?

That was the impetus for a report — titled “Keys under doormats: Mandating insecurity by requiring government access to all data and communications” — published today by security experts from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), alongside other leading researchers from the U.S. and the U.K.

MIT Sloan
Management Review

July 6, 2015

Remaking a Company for the Digital Natives

The Gallup Great Workplace Award was created to recognize companies that have figured out the best ways to create an engaged workplace culture. In 2014, USAA was one of just 36 companies worldwide to receive the award.

That’s a feather in the cap of Renee Horne, the vice president of social business at USAA, who joined the company in 2012. She is part of the team of people who recognized that social business tools could be used for talent recruitment and new employee engagement at USAA, the Texas-based Fortune 500 company that offers a variety of financial services to military members and their families, from auto insurance and credit cards to life insurance and more.