In the future, the familiar and traditional assembly line will morph into a self-assembly line. It may sound like a science fiction movie but it's not.
The entire supply chain will see a dramatic change, where automation, self-assembly, and self-configuration will be the everyday realities. If you followed my latest post on 4D Printing & the Future of Manufacturing, you will recall I recently interviewed Skylar Tibbits, director of the MIT Self-Assembly Lab. Tibbits, in collaboration with Stratasys and Autodesk, has been working during the past years on smart components (with 4D printing being one example of this) and on self-assembly to bring these into industrial scale.
One of the most interesting parts of the interview was around the assembly line, and how humans will benefit from their collaboration with machines in the same work environment. Skylar told EBN:
Machines are visibly split out in what components they are good at. We are good at decision-making, and creativity. Materials can be good at sensing, responding, having changed properties, or fix properties, responding to passive energy sources. And then machines are good at repeatability, and precision .
Taking the best of each world, it will be possible to accomplish more, at a higher quality, and more quickly even across different assembly lines.
Self-assembly versus 4D printing
Many people don't understand the difference between self-assembly and 4D printing. “In self-assembly, there are separate parts, not connected,” said Skylar. “They find one another on their own to build up precise structures.”
Seeing both in action help make it easier to understand.
In 4D printing, all the parts are pre-connected, and they just reconfigure, or transform. They basically change shape and properties. Therefore, 4D printing is self-configuration (or smart materials).
Take a look at this cube self-folding strand, a collaboration between Skylar Tibbits and Stratasys:
Manufacturers are investing millions annually in an effort to bring smarter machines, automated factories, and robotics into their processes. For Skylar, there is also a need for smarter materials, and people working in collaboration with these materials. By containing assembly information, smart materials can adapt to the evolving environment, sort themselves, or build themselves.
This presents a great opportunity for a real collaboration between people and machines, Skylar said. He makes it clear that is not about eliminating people from jobs, which is something many are worried about. Rather, people listen and respond to the materials. Also, jobs will evolve to allow people to do what people do best, that is design what they want materials to do.
Now, catch a 4D printed self-folding surface cube experiment by MIT's Self-Assembly Lab, and Stratasys:
Now it's possible to design materials with changing properties — materials that can be oriented in certain ways responding to how they were programmed. “It's essentially like printing robotics, just instead of having to assemble robots, you can print materials that can transform,” Skylar said.
From nanotechnology to industrial scale
Nanotechnology is already using smart materials, self-assembly, self-configuration, and 4D printing. What Skylar and his team are proposing is to move the process into the industrial scale, in order to be able to manufacture industrial products with the properties of nanotechnology.
Indeed, it sounds fascinating. The possible applications can be endless when you start thinking about it. Could it be possible to create a self-assembling underwater city? How is self-assembly going to be used in space? Could smartphones and tablets transform into something else?