Dear Manufacturing, Do it Yourself: Industry 4.0 and Self-Assembling Machines

There is a lot of excitement around Industry 4.0. For those of you thinking we’re just making up buzz terms (you may not be wrong), Industry 4.0 is viewed as the next revolution in manufacturing beyond automation. It’s where IoT, big data analysis, cloud connectivity, and cyber-physical systems – or, as I like to call them, “phygital” systems (yes, I totally made that up) – enable smart factories with modular infrastructures that can scale up or down to build a huge variety of products, whether at a uniform, large, fast-scale rate, or at a personalized, small, slower pace. And while many of you likely opened this article having no idea what Industry 4.0 even was, I’m already bored of the topic.

Why in the world would I create a factory to make things for me? I expect better of the products around me; I want them to make themselves. I don’t want machines that make machines, I want machines that can self-assemble. While we’re at it, I want machines that self-reassemble so that we can design and create dynamic products. I want the world around me to breathe with activity and to shift and evolve at my whim and fancy. As usual, the only things that seem to get me out of bed in the morning are the stuff of science fiction. However, we are starting to see some tangible examples where this stuff is turning into science fact.

No one should be surprised that a good chunk of this work is coming out of MIT. In fact, even three years ago, a project initiated by John Romanishin at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) showed one of the first tangible examples of robots being able to self-assemble in the project M-Blocks. The blocks are innocuous enough looking cubes that – using an internal, braked flywheel – transfer angular momentum into a burst of energy to navigate around a self-assembling structure by breaking and reforming magnetic connections. Even more fun, the blocks can build up enough potential energy to leap into the air, sparking minds like mine to envision a future where small armies of these blocks hop along the ground before using swarm intelligence to acrobatically dog pile upon each other and form massive, complex structures.

Another MIT player in this game is the aptly named Self-Assembly Lab. After pioneering the concept of 4D printing – 3D printed objects that self-transform in shape and material over time – Skylar Tibbits’ radical lab has recently announced a new project where consumer electronics assemble themselves. While objectively, the project is little more than a bunch of magnetized components being tossed around in a tumbler until they form a connection, the randomized aspects of this process have the potential to produce wholly new types of electronics that we haven’t envisioned before, and the potential scale of the process could quickly shift from building electronics from five components into those comprised of thousands. Just place the parts in, add a bit of energy, and voila: new phones!

However, the real fun starts when we stop talking about thousands of components and start talking about billions of nanoparticles. Though a number of labs are working on this endeavor, one of the first to successfully see the self-assembly of a nanoparticle chain in real-time was the US DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory. By bombarding gold nanoparticles with electrons, they can be encouraged to form bonds through the attraction to positively charged nanoparticles. Though still very rudimentary, the holy grail of this topic envisions a future where we can assemble matter at the atomic or even subatomic level. With this kind of power, we would no longer have to think about robots that jump on each other or magnetized components that stick together; we would potentially be able to dynamically shift matter itself and bend it to our will. We could create and destroy objects in an instant through the reorganization of atoms, turning water into wine, replicating food from dust, or, in frightening extreme cases, creating life out of thin air.

What would you build with this technology?

Shane Saunderson is the VP of IC/things at Idea Couture.