MIT's origami-inspired self assembling robotRobots capable of assembling themselves on the fly and lighting products which come together from flat sheets are the latest in a series of innovations and experiments pushing the boundaries of 3D printing, product design and rapid manufacturing.

On the robotic front, scientists at MIT have developed a device which can assemble itself from 3D printed components when heat is applied. The MIT team demonstrated their startling work at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Hong Kong.

Constructed from polyvinyl chloride, the robot is made up of printed, two-dimensional sheets which are then placed between two rigid polyester films featuring various-sized slits. When the sheets are placed in an oven, they contract. As the slits close, the polyester film edges are forced together to complete the assembly.

The secret lies in the edge patterns which guide the movement of the PVC to form the final, complex 3D shape of the robot.

Daniela Rus and team

An engineering and computer science professor at MIT, Daniela Rus, explains it as a sort of chaotic process of collisions which ultimately lead to an organized structure.

"You're doing this really complicated global control that moves every edge in the system at the same time," Rus says. "You want to design those edges in such a way that the result of composing all these motions – which actually interfere with each other – leads to the correct geometric structure. We have this big dream of the hardware compiler, where you can specify, 'I want a robot that will play with my cat,' or, 'I want a robot that will clean the floor,' and from this high-level specification, you actually generate a working device,"

Rus' work, funded by a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation, is aimed at no less a goal than a complete reinvention of the way robots are designed and produced.

"This research envisions a whole new way of thinking about the design and manufacturing of robots, and could have a profound impact on society," she says.

Researchers at Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering demonstrated a rudimentary lamp as a proof of concept which, once 3D printed, can be made to unfold itself for use when heat is applied.And not to be left behind, researchers at Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering demonstrated a rudimentary lamp as a proof of concept which, once 3D printed, can be made to unfold itself for use when heat is applied. The lamp includes both a mechanical switch and a capacitive touch sensor.

The real innovation here is that the sensors are produced directly from the printer along with all the self-folding elements – and even the vast majority of the necessary wiring.

The switch itself, a hinged linkage that can be forced to open or close printed electrical contacts, includes a touch sensor used to switch the lamp on and off or adjust the brightness of the LED lamp within. The lamp is made up of a multi-layer sandwich created from shape-memory polymers which react to heat, thin layers of copper, and layers of foam and paper which provide structural support.

Printable sensors are the focus of some pioneering work. They generally lack structural strength and reliability like that sensors which result from current processes, but they do have potential applications in rapid prototyping and manufacturing.