Skylar Tibbits, Materials Architect

Picture of Skylar Tibbits in front of 4-d models
Photograph by Lynn Johnson, National Geographic Photography Fellow

Skylar Tibbits, Materials Architect

'Going Radical' With 4-D Printing

Can we create objects that assemble themselves, that zip together like a strand of DNA and have the ability for transformation embedded in them? These are some of the intriguing questions that Skylar Tibbits, director of the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT, grapples with every day. Trained as an architect, with a master's degree in design computation, his cross-disciplinary research brings together designers, scientists, and engineers to create novel manufacturingc, products, and construction processes. 

Talking from Boston, Tibbits takes us on a virtual tour of his lab, explains how 4-D printing can create materials that transform and adapt over time, and how his goal is to surprise himself. —Simon Worrall


You describe yourself as a materials architect. Explain what that means.


I don't know if I describe myself as that. [Laughs.] It was a title bestowed on me by National Geographic. But that's fine. [Laughs.] I studied architecture, computer science, and design computation and essentially our work is about the intersection of computer science and the physical world, which leads to materials. We study how to program materials so that they change shape or property, build themselves, reconfigure, error correct—all of those sorts of things.


We all know about 3-D printing. But you are developing 4-D printing. What's the difference?


The idea behind 4-D printing is that we try to add the element of time. When we print things, they're not finished. Rather, that's the start of their life. They reconfigure, they change shape, they adapt to their environment, so they transform over time. It's sort of like printing Transformers, or printing robots without wires or motors. You can predict and program how they transform into shapes, like strands that transform into text, sheets that you can ship flat and they transform into three-dimensional objects, or surfaces that can mold themselves into any shape you want. More recently, we released what we consider a broader category of programmable materials, of which 4-D printing would be a subset.


This sounds like sci-fi. What are the real-life applications for this exciting new technology?


We've been superfortunate in that a number of industries have come to us, looking at different applications. Our vision is to make smarter products and have smarter environments. Most of the time that has been focused on robotics, but robotics tend to be expensive; they take a lot of assembly time and often fail. Materials open up all sorts of new possibilities. We're working with industries in sportswear, apparel, shoes, aviation, automotive, furniture, building materials, infrastructure devices. All of these can adapt, morph their shape, become more breathable, more flexible, more comfortable, rigid for shipping, transform themselves, so you can eliminate assembly on the other side. We currently have a collaboration with Airbus, working on morphable components, specifically how to control airflow to the engine. You don't need electromechanical flaps that are heavy and can fail. We work both on developing new technologies and tailoring them to radical industrial applications.


Take us inside the Self-Assembly Lab.


We have 500-gallon tanks of water and four-foot-diameter fans and blowers. We have tumblers and concrete mixers, furnaces to anneal metal, all sorts of 3-D printing capabilities, and tanks of helium for gases to make things float. We have heaters that activate materials, all sorts of machines and crazy environments to both look at assembly and transformation.


As well as this work, you have designed and built large-scale installations around the world. Are these artworks? Give us a picture.


In between studying architecture and then coming to MIT to study computer science, I was doing these experimental installations, collaborating with a lot of different people, exhibiting them in galleries. These were pushing the limits of what was possible with materials and digital fabrication. They were small-construction assembly projects, at the limits of what we could do in architecture, though they were exhibited as somewhere between architecture and art. The assembly of these installations is what led me to the whole work on self-assembly, trying to find ways that the materials could assemble themselves.


Look ahead ten years. Where do you think you will be with this work?


It's a hard question. Predicting the future tends not to be the most successful path you can go down. I never would have guessed I'd be working on the things I'm working on now five or ten years ago. It's more like an endless search, a quest, always trying to do new things and invent technologies that weren't previously possible. Go radical and look at big, crazy technologies or spaces. Every day we try to invent something new, push our limits, go beyond what we know is possible, challenge industries, challenge our peers and ourselves, and make radical leaps.


What inspires you in your work?


I guess I could say two things are the most inspiring. One is chasing surprise, finding ways to surprise youraself, because you quickly become used to something. I'm interested in changing people's intuition based on phenomena that are maybe intuitive in other domains or scales, but not our scale. The other one is that we're always trying to do the impossible. We think, Why can't you do that? What if we could do that? Instead of saying, Let's improve this and go a little bit further, we want those big leaps. The crazier and more impossible it sounds, the more interested we are.

In Their Words

We always want big leaps. The crazier and more impossible it sounds, the more interested we are.

—Skylar Tibbits

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