Magnetic Reprogramming: Unlocking Potential of Selective Self-Assembly

Selective self-assembly of reprogrammable materials
Although automated manufacturing is commonplace today, it used to be a new field. Innovators such as Oliver Evans are credited with the creation of the first fully automated industry process in a flour mill that he built in the late 1800s and automated gradually. The process of creating automated machines or structures is still top-down. Humans, factories or robots are required to assemble and make the machine.

Nature, on the other hand, is a bottom-up assembly system. Animals and plants self-assemble at the cellular level. They rely on proteins that self-fold to target geometries which encode the various functions that keep us going. Human-designed materials must be able to perform better by themselves in order to achieve a bottom-up, bio-inspired approach to assembly. To make them scalable and selective in order to mimic nature’s versatility, they will need to be reprogrammable.

Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory have tried to overcome these growing pains by introducing a new technique: introducing magnetically reprogrammable material that they coat with different parts–like robot cubes—-to let them auto-assemble. The key to their process is to find a way to make magnetic programs selective about what they attach to, enabling robust and reliable self-assembly in specific shapes and configurations.