The energy required to initiate self-assembly in the MIT/Stratasys project comes from interactions of the water molecules with the molecules of the water-expanding material, said Dikovksy. Other energy sources could include humidity, sound, heat, or vibration. But before that, the next step could be generating energy by removing water, which will make the structure contract instead of expand.
In an interview on the TED blog about his 2013 TED Talk, Tibbits says potential applications for the technology are space systems that expand and self-assemble in orbit, activated by changes in pressure, temperature, or light.
Self-assembly of artificial systems is not a new idea. It's being pursued at the nano-level, using carbon nanotubes and organic or engineered DNA, as well as various methods for modular, self-reconfigurable robots.
We've covered mechanical, self-assembling robots such as the Smart Pebbles robotic cubes built by a team in the Distributed Robotics Laboratory (DRL) of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL). At the nano-device level, we've reported on synthetic DNA strands programmed to self-assemble into 2D tiles, and more recently, into 3D bricks, by researchers at Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.
Many of the developments in robotics are actually aimed at product manufacturing: The idea is to use robotic modules to make rapid prototypes, self-repairing systems, replacement parts for other systems, and self-reconfiguring systems like furniture that changes from a chair into a table. Adding expandable, programmable materials and 3D printing to this mix will give the development of this rapidly-changing field a big boost.
eafpres, thanks for the feedback. My April feature on self-assembly and self-reconfiguring robots will touch on several of these subjects. If you're interested in nanoscale self-assembly, I suggest you check out DNA origami and the Wyss Institute work on DNA 2D tiles and 3D bricks.
Thanks for sharing this. I watched the underwater cube, then I watched Skylar's TED talk as well. When you think about a system like this, it makes sense that 3D printing (or some form of 3D manufacturing) and self-assembly go together--things we want in the world are mainly 3D, so they are assembled out of 3D parts (the printer that prints out of stacked sheets notwithstanding--they are still 3D--they have thickness!).
It is interesting to think about gravity as the main source of energy (potential energy) and building structures. In a sense, this is already done on a large scale or certain types of retaining walls. You have 3D blocks that fit together, and gravity provides the force to keep them together. I have seen some blocks for walls that are very large--think a concrete lego brick the size of a bale of hay. Some I have seen have bumps on one side and dents on the other, so they stack and won't move horizontally, and gravity does the rest.
On a smaller scale, I wonder what could be done with structures that respond to other sources, such as thermal, and pH, or even blood chemistry, and how those could be used in the body.
These new 3D-printing technologies and printers include some that are truly boundary-breaking: a sophisticated new sub-$10,000, 10-plus materials bioprinter, the first industrial-strength silicone 3D-printing service, and a clever twist on 3D printing and thermoforming for making high-quality realistic models.
Using simulation to guide the drafting process can speed up the design and production of 3D-printed nanostructures, reduce errors, and even make it possible to scale up the structures. Oak Ridge National Laboratory has developed a model that does this.
Engineers need workhorse materials with beefy mechanical properties for industrial designs made with 3D printing. Very few have been designed from the ground up for additive manufacturing, but that picture is beginning to change.
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