An MIT researcher shows how coding skills have lead to a new world of ‘programmable materials’

Even if you haven’t formally begun learning how to code, you probably have a basic understanding of how programming works: creating a series of instructions or commands that tell a software application what to do. For Skylar Tibbits, however, the concept of coding can extend far beyond what happens on a screen and into what we wear, sit on or hold in our hands.

Tibbits, the founder and co-director of the Self-Assembly Lab at the Massacheusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was in Montreal recently at a three-day conference called C2, where he tried to explain how the same skills that allow us to program software can be applied to a wide range of materials.

Skylar Tibbits, MIT

Like many people using Course Compare, Tibbits did not necessarily come from a technology background, having gotten his first degree in architecture before studying computation at MIT. He has come to recognize, however, that blending his knowledge of design with the foundational principles of programming could lead to major improvements in the manufacturing of shoes, airplane parts and a lot more.

“We’re fighting an uphill battle in terms of complexity,” in the way we make products today, Tibbits said. “We’ve started to see code as a new language for design.”

Some of what Tibbits and his team have done, for example, is to learn enough about the properties of wood, plastic and other materials that they can fabricate them in such a way that they change in response to things like moisture or gravity. He showed a concrete-like material, for example, that could be used to build a structure but then change from solid back to liquid so that the structure could be moved or reused.

Textiles, meanwhile, could be programmed by stretching them and spraying them with other material so that they jump into a particular shape when they are released. Tibbits demonstrated one piece of material that almost instantly morphed into the shape of a sneaker, which would obviously have a huge impact on the way everyday items are made.

ACTIVE SHOES Upper and Sole from Christophe Guberan on Vimeo.

“By shaping the materials, you begin to see different responses to energy,” Tibbits explained. This is not far removed from the code that programmers will write in order to have a software application perform a task, like moving from one page to another on a web site, in response to the click of a button.

Those learning to code might also be interested in how they might one day program software that works with 3D printers, but Tibbits and his team have been pioneering the concept of 4D printing, which he described as “3D printing plus time.” Instead of writing a program to design a 3D printed object that always looks and feels the same, in other words, it is now possible to add properties to objects created with a 3D printer that will fold, bend or curl after they have been produced. A variant of this is what Tibbits called rapid liquid printing.

“It can take hours or days to print a chair today,” he said. By using hydrogels that swell in response to moisture, however, manufacturers could create fully-made furniture by immersing it in liquid within a far shorter period of time.

While some of these experiments are still in their early stages, they underscore the near-limitless possibilities that might be available to those who learn to code, whether it’s developing applications that design these next-generation materials, or simply creating software that runs in a world where nearly everything we touch is based on a programmer’s way of solving problems.

“We often look to automation or cheaper labour to deal with challenges, but we should still be making better materials,” Tibbits said. “Tomorrow, we can program matter itself.”

To begin your own programming journey, check out our selection of courses in web development

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