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The Transition to the Self-Assembly Line

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?

55 comments on “The Transition to the Self-Assembly Line

  1. Himanshugupta
    August 29, 2013

    I think the main applications are in hard to reach places such as in deep space or oceans or inside earth. If we can program the material such that it can self-assemble and replicate then it can found usefullness for sure.

  2. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    August 29, 2013

    Thanks for being part of our chat on this topic yesterday, Susan!  Others, if you didn't make it, take a look at the transcript–we covered a lot of ground!

    Live Chat 8/28: New Dimensions in Printing

  3. Susan Fourtané
    August 30, 2013

    Thanks, Hailey, it was good. Although maybe it would have been better to have two separate sessions, one of 3D, and another one for 4D.  

    -Susan 

  4. Susan Fourtané
    August 30, 2013

    Himanshu, 

    Yes, absolutely. Aerospace, and marine industries, for equipment that is used in excavations, mines, etc., this can bring and enourmously benefit. What do you think it could be a specific, creative, useful use for self-assembly? 

    -Susan 

  5. Nemos
    August 30, 2013

    “self-assembly and 4D printing.” Maybe my question is a bit silly but what is the difference between 3D and 4D printing ? 

  6. Nemos
    August 30, 2013

    Nice observation , but have in mind that always will be the need for reliable on time manufacturing and even if we could produce products at our home not anybody could be in the position to do it. For instance does anybody have advance knowledge of computing although have a PC ?  

  7. Susan Fourtané
    August 30, 2013

    Lily, 

    “If everything can achieve self-assembly, then there will be no Foxconn-like production lines, what will human do?”

    Maybe if you read all the article you will have your question answered. Here is one of the paragraphs I wrote:

    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.  

    Some jobs that will not be needed anymore will disappear, and new ones will be created. This is not new. The history of humanity is full of examples on the evolution of some jobs. 

    -Susan 

     

  8. Susan Fourtané
    August 30, 2013

    Nemos, 

    No, that was not a good observation at all. It is not even close to what reality will be. To be able to understand new technologies you need to be able to have vision into the future. 

    -Susan 

  9. Susan Fourtané
    August 30, 2013

     “Maybe my question is a bit silly but what is the difference between 3D and 4D printing ?”

    Nemos,

    4D Printing entails multi-material prints provided by Stratasys' Connex Technology with the added capability of embedded transformation from one shape to another, directly off the print-bed. This revolutionary technique offers a streamlined path from idea to reality with full functionality built directly into the materials. Imagine robotics-like behavior without the reliance on complex electro-mechanical devices.

    4D printing adds transformation capabilities to 3D printed objects.

    By using a specialized 3D printer from Stratasys, manufacturers can create multi-layered materials. These materials can be programmed in any 1D, 2D, or 3D shape. Programming the materials with transformation capabilities adds the 4D.

    You missed my article on 4D printing. I recommend you read it. 🙂 Here: http://www.ebnonline.com/author.asp?section_id=1364&doc_id=266835&  Read it, and you will understand more. 

    -Susan 

  10. prabhakar_deosthali
    August 30, 2013

    One of the advantages of this 4D printing technology as I see it that the product transportation can become easier.

    With 4D,  a product can be produced in a compressed shape and size  for ease of transportation. It can be programmed to “bloom” to its actual size at the installation site.

    If such things become possible with 4D technology then it will have a major impact on transport logistics.

  11. Taimoor Zubar
    August 30, 2013

    “With 4D,  a product can be produced in a compressed shape and size  for ease of transportation. It can be programmed to “bloom” to its actual size at the installation site.”

    @prabhakar: That's a good point. While the weight might remain the same, I agree that it may become a lot easier to change the shape into a form where many products can be stacked together easily to save space and later be restored into their original form. Would be interesting to see which products are made using this technique.

  12. Taimoor Zubar
    August 30, 2013

    @Susan: I understand that 4D involves the ability to self-assemble products at a later stage as and when needed. What I'm curious to know is the strength of the bonding when the products are reassembled. Is is really strong? Can it be applied to all kinds of products?

  13. Nemos
    August 31, 2013

    “Good observation” Although I don't agree with her for the reasons I wrote still is a concern that we must have in mind.  

  14. Susan Fourtané
    August 31, 2013

    Nemos, 

    Do you think it would be better to stop progress just because there are some people in the world who can't understand that jobs change overtime? 

    -Susan

  15. Susan Fourtané
    August 31, 2013

    prabhakar, 

    That's a good point to consider about logistics. Good thinking. Do you have something in mind as example that could “bloom” to its actual size at the installation site? Oh, and remember that 4D printing, and self-assembly are two different processes. 🙂

    -Susan

  16. Susan Fourtané
    August 31, 2013

    Prabhakar,

    This is the description of the bio-molecular self-assembly shown in the video in the article. 

    “Participants at TEDGlobal will each receive a unique glass flask containing anywhere from 4 to 12 red, black or white parts. When the glass flask is shaken randomly the independent parts find each other and self-assemble various molecular structures. The flasks contain a custom tag that identifies the type of molecular structure and the ingredients for successful self-assembly.”

    You can find the whole project here: http://bioselfassembly.net/

    -Susan

  17. Himanshugupta
    August 31, 2013

    @TaimoorZ, i had the similar question about the self-assembly as the product post assembly might not be that strong but there might be treatements post assembly that can be done to strenghten the overall structure. The benefit of 3D or 4D printing can be the transportation and storage of the parts of the structure.

  18. Himanshugupta
    August 31, 2013

    @Susan, i am still not sure if i understood the differnce between the 4D printing and self assembly. It looks to me like 4D printing is basic form of selfassembly where the parts are assembled to a large extent and only a small part of asembly needs to be done. Self-assembly on other hand can work to more homogenous material or symmetric strucuters.

  19. Ashu001
    August 31, 2013

    Himanshu,

    You are not entirely mistaken/Wrong here.

    4D Printing has Assembly Options built in today.

    Just that it is'nt so advanced just yet.

  20. Ashu001
    August 31, 2013

    Susan,

    We still have some way to go before these concepts can be used outside of Hollywood.Right?

    I can already see so many scary consequences of this Happening on a Grand Scale today.

  21. Susan Fourtané
    August 31, 2013

    Taimoor, 

    The strength depends on the materials used. 4D printing means you are adding transformation capabilities to the 3D printed objects.

    Watch the TED video in my previous article (look on the right hand side on your screen) where Tibbits explains how he adds the 4D, and also explains self-assembly. He says these two are often confused.

    In the article, there is a part where Skylar Tibbits makes the difference between 4D printing, and self-assembly. See the subtitle 4D printing vs. self-assembly. 

    “Can it be applied to all kinds of products?”

    What kind of products do you have in mind?

    And then let me know if it's more clear. 

    -Susan 

  22. Susan Fourtané
    August 31, 2013

    Ashish, 

    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. This wold be very useful in piping, for example. 

    -Susan 

  23. Susan Fourtané
    August 31, 2013

    Ashish, 

    Not so long way to go, though. 😀 If you really see the potential in 4D printing, and self-assembly in an industrial scale you can see what the near future will bring. It's just applying what nanotechnology i already doing into a bigger picture. 

    Now, what are those scary consequenses that you already see? :/ 

    -Susan 

  24. Ashu001
    August 31, 2013

    Susan,

    Possibly but Skylar still has some time to become Industrially Ready?

     

  25. Ashu001
    August 31, 2013

    Susan,

    What about costs?

    Especially in a sceanario where Capital becomes Scarce?

    Will the same rules apply then?

    I don't think so.

    Nanotechnology is even today a very expensive Business Proposition.

    And that is when Capital is plentiful and Credit is cheap thanks to Central Bank Liquidity.What happens when the Tide turns the otherway?

     

  26. Susan Fourtané
    August 31, 2013

    Ashish, 

    What do you mean? Did you see his TED presentation? It's in my previous article, look on the right hand-side of your screen. Watch it, and then tell me what you think.

    It certainly clarifies many things. I personally believe that if he is proposing move from the nano scale to industrial scale is because the technology is ready. 

    -Susan

  27. Ashu001
    August 31, 2013

    Susan,

    Yes that does'nt mean its economically feasible currently.

    Is it?

     

  28. Susan Fourtané
    August 31, 2013

    Ashish,

    I didn't ask about costs. Therefore, I don't know exact figures. But, if you think about it, and you think about the ROI it has to be a win. That's how I see it. 

    We all know that when there is no capital the rules are different. And this is no different from any other thing in technology, or other aspects of daily life for that matter. 

    Not because a technology might be expensive for some manufacturers it would be fair to not develop it, right? Some other manufacturers will be able to invest in the technology to advance their assembly line. Again, thinking of ROI, they will see the benefits. 

    -Susan 

  29. Susan Fourtané
    August 31, 2013

    Ashish, 

    “Yes that does'nt mean its economically feasible currently.”

    I gave you my argument about ROI, etc. Now it's your turn to tell me why, and how you can be so sure that it's not economically feasible.  

    Meanwhile, I would say that the feasibility will depend, again, on the manufacturers who would be willing to invest in the technology, or not. For instance, do you think that if Apple sees a benefit it won't invest? I think it will. 

    What about NASA? Aerospace is one of the industries that would see great benefits. Do you think NASA can't invest? 

    -Susan

  30. Susan Fourtané
    August 31, 2013

    Himanshu,

    Self-assembly versus 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.”

    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).

    “4D Printing entails multi-material prints provided by the Connex Technology with the added capability of embedded transformation from one shape to another, directly off the print-bed. This revolutionary technique offers a streamlined path from idea to reality with full functionality built directly into the materials. Imagine robotics-like behavior without the reliance on complex electro-mechanical devices.”

    Here you can read about the whole self-assembly project: http://bioselfassembly.net/

    Did you watch the TED video in previous article? If not, I think you could find it useful to see the difference in more light.

    -Susan

  31. Susan Fourtané
    August 31, 2013

    Taimoor, 

    Here you can read more about future applications of self-assembly: http://bioselfassembly.net/future-applications/ 

    -Susan

  32. SP
    August 31, 2013

    Agreed self assembly line is the future its quite a monotonous job and the process and instructions remains same so its good to have self assembly line you can also reduce the human emotional problems

  33. SunitaT
    August 31, 2013

    @Susan, thanks for sharing the link. I was not aware about this new technology called self-assembly. When I saw the video I realised the potential of this new technology.

  34. SunitaT
    August 31, 2013

    I think the main applications are in hard to reach places such as in deep space or oceans or inside earth.

    @Himanshugupta, I totally agree with your opinion. I think this technology will help us to reach places which are hard to reach. I am curious to know if they can work in all conditions or does it require some specific condition for this process to happen ?

  35. Susan Fourtané
    August 31, 2013

    SP, 

    Exactly. People could be doing something that better uses the human capacity, instead of assebling stuff like automats. I always imagined something so monotonous has to bring some psychological, emotional, and even physical problem at brain level. The assembly line is the perfect example of a job that can be automated. 

    -Susan

  36. Susan Fourtané
    August 31, 2013

    You are welcome, tirlapur. 

    I'm glad you found something new. 🙂 There is pleanty of new technology out there waiting to be discovered, and used. 

    -Susan

     

  37. Susan Fourtané
    August 31, 2013

    tirlapur, 

    “I am curious to know if they can work in all conditions or does it require some specific condition for this process to happen ?”

    What condition do you have in mind, for example?

    -Susan

  38. SunitaT
    August 31, 2013

    For example, does it require particular temperature, pressure for this phenomenon to happen ?

  39. SunitaT
    August 31, 2013

    There is pleanty of new technology out there waiting to be discovered, and used.

    @Susan, true. Its amazing to know that so much of new development is happening that sometimes it gets hard to follow each and every development.

  40. Susan Fourtané
    August 31, 2013

    tirlapur, 

    I see. It can be activated by an external factor like water, temperature, moisture, etc. The level of temperature, for example, will depend on the materials you are using, and their reaction.

    -Susan

  41. Susan Fourtané
    August 31, 2013

    tirlapur, 

    Yes, I think the same. Sometimes it seems like it's too fast paced. Before you finish learning about one new technology there is something else coming up.

    Then again, it simply reflects the speed in which socity is inmerse. It's a matter of getting used to it, and adapting as fast as technologies emerge because there is no coming back. 

    Soon I am bringing you news of some other new technology that is also great. Don't miss it to stay on top of the game. 🙂

    -Susan

  42. SunitaT
    August 31, 2013

    Sometimes it seems like it's too fast paced. Before you finish learning about one new technology there is somethig else coming up.

    @Susan, very true. I think best way to tackle this is we should learn quickly and should adopt new technologies easily else it would be hard to keep-up pace with the technology.

  43. prabhakar_deosthali
    September 1, 2013

    Susan,

    That is wonderful.

    It is like our olden days caledioscope where different colored pices of glass make a new pattern everytime you shake them.

  44. t.alex
    September 1, 2013

    Susan, the videos are amazing ! Thanks for sharing on 4D printing technology.

    Is this purely based on material and external factor configuration or any smart chip or circuit involved?

  45. Susan Fourtané
    September 2, 2013

    tirlapur, 

    “I think best way to tackle this is we should learn quickly and should adopt new technologies easily else it would be hard to keep-up pace with the technology.”

    That's the best, yes. Every day when I read about a new development in technology –and yes, they happen everyday– I think about that what you said.

    So, learning about the new technolgies, adopting them if they serve the business we are involved in as soon as possible, ebracing them with a vision into the future, and understanding why they were designed/developed in the first place in a good way to start.

    Keeping up the pace with technology these days implies daily learning.

    -Susan

  46. Susan Fourtané
    September 2, 2013

    Prabhakar, 

    Yes. It's wonderful. It keeps imagination active. And opens endless doors. 

    -Susan

  47. Susan Fourtané
    September 2, 2013

    t.alex, 

    If you are talking about the materials used in 4D printing they are special multimaterials used for 3D printing (Connex Multimaterials, developed by Stratasys, read my previous article for more on this) with embedded transformable capabilities. 

    Or your question is about self-assembly? 

    -Susan

  48. FLYINGSCOT
    September 4, 2013

    I must admit I was a bit sceptical until I saw the various videos on self assembling structures.  Although these were all fairly rudimentary I can only imagine what might be possible in 100 years.

  49. Susan Fourtané
    September 5, 2013

    Flyingscot! 😀 

    Well, the videos are tests, but you can see the big picture, right? And no, you don't have to hire a criogenics company to see self-assembly in your life time. This will happen quite soon, as soon as some manufacturers see the potential, and benefits for their business. 

    How would you like to see self-assembly deployed? 

    But of course you are very welcome to extend your life contract for 100 more years. 😛 

    -Susan

  50. _hm
    September 5, 2013

    Do we really need it? By the time self-assembly line is begin it work, product life will be over.

     

  51. t.alex
    September 6, 2013

    Susan, yes it is about the materials.

  52. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    September 10, 2013

    @Susan, say the word and we'll take a run at 4D. I bet it would be a lot of fun!

  53. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    September 10, 2013

    -HM, i suspect that as it evolves we'll find uses for these capabilties that we can barely imagine now.

  54. SunitaT
    September 22, 2013

    @ Susan Fourtane, yes it is too fast. There is, however, explanation for why it is faster today than ever before. It is because we have much bigger knowledge base today (A Sociological term). There is always a technological breakthrough in every field, after which technological progress takes great pace. For example, Integrated Circuit (IC) was a breakthrough in bringing computing to much smaller machines and you can see where we stand today in that arena.

  55. SunitaT
    September 22, 2013

    Impact would indeed be great. One could only imagine the impact and usefulness if small gadgets in one's hand such as smart phone or tablet could take the shape of something else according to the environment and needs. It is like carrying a world with you. We can fancy about carrying one thing that could transform itself into a few more things.

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