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This Teeny Chair Can Assemble Itself

A tiny prototype developed at MIT marks one of the first steps into a world where we’ll never need an Allen wrench again

(Neumann & Rodtmann/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

How great would it be to never again find yourself sitting on the living room floor surrounded by an instruction manual, nails and wood, sore and confused, regretting every life choice that brought you to that very moment?

Researchers at MIT are on the case—they have created a chair that puts itself together.

Don't throw away your IKEA wrench just yet, though. As Wired reports, the chair is tiny—less than 6 inches tall—and it needs an "uncontrolled environment"—a tank of water, in this case—to work its magic.

Still, research scientist Skylar Tibbits and his team at MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab have succeeded in making a chair capable of assembling itself. It does exactly what the team intented and may lead to larger inventions. Check out the video:

Here’s the catch: In addition to being small, this chair took about seven hours to self-assemble, so we aren’t talking high efficiency—yet.  According to Wired:

In this rough prototype, the chair is made up of six components. Each is embedded with magnets and has an unique connection point that allows it to latch onto another piece. Think of it like a puzzle with the magnets acting as the attracting force. “At close proximity, each piece should easily connect with its corresponding component but never with another one,” explains Baily Zuniga, a student in the lab who led the research.

One key element the team is working to nail down in the realm of self-assembly is the sweet spot between control and unpredictability. “Exert too much control over the system and you’ll be stuck with a one-trick object,” writes Wired. “Allow too much randomness, and you lose the ability to dictate the final form at all.” Though the scientists’ influence is limited when it comes to the water tank, the current design is getting close to a kind of middle ground between order and whim.

It’s all part of a larger project called Fluid Assembly Furniture, which is one of a variety of Tibbits’ many research projects with Self-Assembly Lab. His previously publicized work includes fiber pieces that reshape themselves when exposed to certain elements. He calls the larger process “4D printing,” and it’s the subject of his TED Talk.

So, why’s a team of brilliant MIT scientists spending their days designing easier-to-make furniture? It isn’t about leisure. Creations like Tibbits’ could one day be employed to repair objects and mechanisms that may be hard to reach—in places like space or deep under the ocean. But that’s still a long way off. More data and experimentation are needed to better understand self-assembly processes and identify which modes and materials might be most efficient. So, keep that toolbox around.

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