Interview of Skylar Tibbits MIT Self-Assembly Lab at C2 Montreal #C2M18

Skylar Tibbits is the founder & co-director of the the Self-Assembly research lab at MIT. They are inventing self-assembly and programmable material technologies. The Lab looks at making simpler materials only products without robotics but still creates robotic like effects.

The Lab has three main areas-
Self-Assembly & Self-Organization
Programmable Materials & 4D Printing
Phase Change Materials

Many applications, clients and partners

They work with many partners and sponsors. Car companies, airplane companies, architects, construction industry clients and many more are interested or involved in projects and consultation. There are applications for orthopedics, medicine and many other areas.

Consumer product companies are able to move faster because design and fashion have shorter commercialization cycles.

Manufacturers talk to them about how to make things in new ways.

Approach to go beyond robotics by using recipes leverage material properties

Skylar wants to make things smarter and go beyond robotics.

Exoskeletons have not yet succeeded in delivering solutions for widescale adoption. Exosuits or smart and functional materials could be a better approach.

The goals of soft robotics are similar.

They look at the properties of materials or the combination of several materials or alloys. They look at changes based on temperature, moisture, sunlight or other conditions.

Need to create broad standardization for an extended database for this broader view of materials and domain of properties

Those who are working in this area are like masterchefs and are applying their own processes and recipes. There is the need for standardization of terms and methods to enable greater collaboration and cross-fertilization.

This kind of broad database would then be the basis for deep learning exploration of active, functional and self assembling materials.

Partial list of examples and areas from the MIT Self Assembly site

They have a window screen with a new glazing that changes based upon sunlight.

Transforming screen wall

Materials can be used as sensors and actuators.

They try to avoid motors and electronics but those are solutions which can also be incorporated.

Whole Garment Printing

They leverage Whole Garment knitting.

Complete garment knitting is a next-generation form of fully fashioned knitting that adds the capability of making a 3-dimensional full garment. Unlike other fully fashioned knitting, where the shaped pieces must still be sewn together, finished complete knitted garments do not have seams. The knitting machines’ computerized instructions direct movement of hundreds of needles to construct and connect several tubular knitted forms to create a complete garment in a single production step.

The complete garment system’s advantages lie in
1) a further reduction in materials beyond even fully fashioned production by eliminating seam allowances and
2) faster time to market by eliminating the need for sewing any components.
These factors increases cost-effectiveness (especially important when using high-performance materials such as aramids for composites). One might also argue that cutting down on wasted by-product selvage makes complete garment better for the environment.

Two companies manufacture complete garment knitting machines: Shima Seiki and Stoll.

Examples of structures that are most often made with the complete garment technique are clothing (sportswear to sweaters) or technical textiles (car seat covers which also incorporate additional structural elements such as metal and plastic fasteners, composite preforms). The machines can produce a variety of topologies that were more difficult or impossible to create with knitting machines before, including: connected tubes, circles, open cuboids, and even spheres (for helmet shells and other preforms)

Aspects of complete garment knitting such as changing the fabric width or diameter and connecting two sides of the structure together are also possible with a single needle bed for two-dimensional or ‘flat’ structures—and are achieved by:

Changing knit structure (e.g. rib to interlock)
Varying the structural elements (stitch length, weft insertion, knit, tuck, float)
Shaping through loop transfer
Wale fashioning by ‘needle parking’
Segmented takedown for varying rates of takedown across the width of the fabric


Tibbits group works with the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America to enable a fabric innovation network.

Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA), is a non-profit Institute headquartered near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is one of the latest members of the National Network of Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) Institutes. AFFOA’s mission enables a manufacturing-based revolution—the transformation of traditional fibers, yarns, and textiles into highly sophisticated integrated and networked devices and systems.

At the heart of this revolution is a simple premise: highly functional textile-systems necessitate sophisticated fiber-device components. To pursue this mission, AFFOA addresses the spectrum of manufacturing challenges associated with volume manufacturing of revolutionary fibers and textiles from design to end products. AFFOA facilitates the transition of these revolutionary fiber and textiles from the laboratory through pilot production, delivering the functionality of semiconductor devices and systems at fiber length, uniformity, and cost. AFFOA leads the convergence of semiconductor technology into fiber and textile production to commercialize textile products that see, hear, sense, communicate, store and convert energy, regulate temperature, monitor health, and change color while delivering the conventional qualities of textiles to benefit the commercial consumer and warfighter.

Fluid Assembly

Fluid Assembly is part of a series of investigations by MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab looking at autonomous assembly in complex and uncontrolled environments (water, air, space etc). In this experiment a number of components are released into a tank of turbulent water. Each of the components is completely unique from one another and has a precise location in the final structure. The process was filmed over 7 hours, after which a full assembled, precise chair was created. The chair was selected to demonstrate differentiated structures as opposed to repetitive growth or self-similar structures. This experiment points towards an opportunity to self-assemble arbitrarily complex differentiated structures from furniture to components, electronics / devices or other unique structures. Once self-assembled, the structures can be removed, tested, used or disassembled and thrown back into the chamber.

Active Textile

Small perforations on a composite textile open and close in response to a light source. The Self-Assembly Lab at MIT investigates programmable materials that can “sense” and respond to their environment without robotic mechanisms. This Active Textile, created with Designtex and Steelcase for the exhibition, demonstrates how programmable materials can enter our living and workspaces. As a textile in a window, the material’s perforations could be programmed to close in response to bright sunlight, providing necessary shading, or open on a cloudy day.

Rock Printing

Using innovative robotic technology, Gramazio Kohler Research, ETH Zurich (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland) and the Self-Assembly Lab, MIT install a 3D printed rock installation in the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial 2015.

GKA Picture

A specifically designed algorithm guided a robotic arm in a three-dimensional “rock printing” process. With the precision that only a robot can provide, it positioned a textile filament layer-by-layer around which loose granular material formed a distinctive shape. The self-aggregating capacity of this digitally crafted design configuration results in a large-scale architectural artefact that requires no additional support elements.

Going far beyond the manual assembly techniques of dry masonry, this endeavor presents a unique combination of state-of-the-art digital design and fabrication technology with building material science. It introduces a sustainable, economical, and structurally sound construction method that fundamentally challenges conventional architecture.

Biomolecular Assembly

The BioMolecular Self-Assembly project, completed for the TED Global Conference in 2012, is a project done in collaboration with molecular biologist Arthur Olson at the Scripps Research Institute and Autodesk. This project demonstrates molecular self-assembly through tangible and physical models. The geometry and material components are based on various molecular structures including the tobacco plant virus, a ferritin protein assembly and catechol dioxygenase enzyme. Each beaker contains a single molecular structure colored either white, red or black, which could be shaken hard enough to break the structure apart, or consistently, yet randomly, to allow for the self-assembly of a complete and precise geometry.

Background on Skylar Tibbits

Skylar Tibbits is a co-director and founder of the Self-Assembly Lab housed at MIT’s International Design Center. The Self-Assembly Lab focuses on self-assembly and programmable material technologies for novel manufacturing, products and construction processes.

Skylar is an Assistant Professor of Design Research in the Department of Architecture where he teaches graduate and undergraduate design studios and How to Make (Almost) Anything, a seminar at MIT’s Media Lab with Neil Gershenfeld. Skylar was recently named R&D Magazine’s 2015 Innovator of the Year, 2015 National Geographic Emerging Explorer, 2014 Inaugural WIRED Fellow, 2014 Gifted Citizen, 2013 Fast Company Innovation by Design Award, 2013 Architectural League Prize, The Next Idea Award at Ars Electronica 2013, Visionary Innovation Award at the Manufacturing Leadership Summit, 2012 TED Senior Fellow and was named a Revolutionary Mind in SEED Magazine’s 2008 Design Issue.

Previously, he has worked at a number of renowned design offices including: Zaha Hadid Architects, Asymptote Architecture and Point b Design. He has designed and built large-scale installations at galleries around the world, has been published extensively in outlets such as the New York Times, Wired, Nature, Fast Company as well as various peer-reviewed journals and books.

Skylar has a Professional Degree in Architecture and minor in experimental computation from Philadelphia University. Continuing his education at MIT, he received a Master of Science in Design Computation and a Master of Science in Computer Science under the guidance of; Patrick Winston, Terry Knight, Erik Demaine and Neil Gershenfeld.

Initiated in 2007, Skylar Tibbits is also the founder and principal of a multidisciplinary design practice, SJET LLC.