How truly weird science is helping to develop self-assembling furniture

16 May 2018

Lining Yao, founding director of the Morphing Matter Lab at Carnegie Mellon University. Image: CMU

Lining Yao, founding director of the Morphing Matter Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, wants to blur the distance between computer bits and atoms.

When we buy anything from a store, we buy it because it performs some specific purpose, such as a wardrobe or chair. But what if we could also find a way to ‘morph’ that furniture into something else?

That is the aim of Lining Yao, founding director of the Morphing Matter Lab at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) which develops materials, tools, and applications of adaptive, dynamic and intelligent morphing matter from nano to macro scales.

One of its most recent highlights was the showcasing of a truly incredible technique called Thermorph.

Taking advantage of the warpage commonly considered a defect of desktop fused deposition modelling (FDM) 3D printers, the team has used inexpensive 3D printers to produce flat plastic items that, when heated, fold themselves into predetermined shapes such as a rose, a boat or even a bunny.

After gaining her PhD from the MIT Media Lab in 2017, Yao became an assistant professor at CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute at the School of Computer Science.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

Being a researcher is one of the most amazing jobs.

You are allowed to dream of a future for you and others, moving steadily towards it. Not to mention, you are paid to work for the future.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

Both myself and my students from the Morphing Matter Lab work on a diverse group of adaptive and transformative materials. We develop material recipes, manufacturing tools and dream of different use cases for these materials.

Often, these materials are bio-inspired or biohybrid, as our natural world is full of inspiring, responsive and dynamic matter.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Adaptive and tuneable materials have many applications in our daily life as well as in infrastructures and industries.

Some applications our lab focused on include responsive wearables and garments; self-assembling furniture and household devices; soft robotics and intelligent machines.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Recently, we teamed up with Barilla – an Italian pasta company – to investigate shape-changing pasta. This involves creating pasta with a flat shape initially, which then turns into 3D shapes as they are cooked in water.

We are seeking collaborators in the furniture industry to make self-assembling chairs and in functional sportswear industry to design responsive garments.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

It is a very interesting research direction as it does not it into any traditional field. It combines design, engineering and materials science, and sometimes bioengineering as well.

This becomes a challenge sometimes as well. We need to constantly look for our academic community, define and redefine our identity as a researcher, designer or a scientist.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

Materials research is not often considered computation related.

I am in the School of Computer Science, where most people works with bits. I’d like to propose that with emerging material science, chemical and biological means, atoms are becoming bits as well.

Physical materials are programmable from micro to macro-structures, and from molecules to systems.

My mission is to blur the gap between bits and atoms, and program the real world.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

For morphing matter, we mostly have been designing the materials and tools to support our daily life, or robotics for many other robotic researchers.

I’d like to see more development and uses in some bigger or less-explored contexts, such as medicine, agriculture, space travel or disaster relief.

Dynamic adaptiveness and responsiveness are certainly ‘fancy’, but we want to see these phenomenon being practical and profound as well, and we are working on it.