Skylar Tibbits

If planned obsolescence is a problem, then self-repairing and evolving designs are the solution.

TED Fellow | Speaker on 4D Printing | Author of Self-Assembly Lab

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Skylar Tibbits | TED Fellow | Speaker on 4D Printing | Author of Self-Assembly Lab
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Skylar Tibbits is on the cutting edge of 4D technology. In his Self-Assembly Lab at MIT, the future of how we make things is being mapped out—and the implications are enormous. Imagine, as just one example, water pipes that are “intelligent,” that can contract and expand as needed. Tibbits forecasts a world where buildings and machines will be self-assembling, replicating, and repairing—changing cities, businesses, and manufacturing.

What is the fourth dimension in 4D printing? It’s time. Skylar Tibbits’s Self-Assembly Lab at MIT is designing things that transform over time: contracting, expanding, folding, and adapting to their environment. Right now, water pipes have fixed capacity and flow rates. If anything changes—environment, demand, ground—we have to dig them up and start from scratch. But, if we start laying pipes built with adaptive materials, they could adapt to changes and repair themselves. That’s what Tibbits is building in his lab: robotics without wires or motors, inspired by natural systems like DNA and proteins. This transformative, responsive way of designing has huge implications for manufacturing, city-building, consumer product development, and aerospace and defense R&D.

Tibbits talks about reducing energy consumption by using passive, abundant, and free energy like UV and wind; creating efficiencies in labour techniques; and faster, more precise design and manufacturing. How does he think 4D printing will change our lives? In the future, Tibbits says, the static objects we interact with now—buildings, clothes, shoes—will respond to what we need, adapt to our conditions, and help us perform better. He is also the author of Self-Assembly Lab: Experiments in Programming Matter (Dec. 2016), a book that “examines the three main ingredients for self-assembly, includes interviews with practitioners involved in the work and presents research projects related to these topics to provide a complete first look at exciting future technologies in construction and self-transforming material products.”


Skylar Tibbits is a trained architect, designer, computer scientist, and artist whose research focuses on developing self-assembly technologies for large-scale applications in our physical environment. He is currently a faculty member in MIT’s Department of Architecture. Previously, he worked at a number of renowned design offices, has designed and built large-scale installations around the world, and has exhibited work at The Guggenheim Museum, NY. Tibbits has been published in The New York TimesWired, and Fast Company, and has guest lectured at The University of Pennsylvania, Pratt Institute, and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. He was recently named R&D Magazine’s 2015 Innovator of the Year and awarded an Architectural League Prize and a TED Senior Fellowship.

Speech Topics

A 4D Future Self-Assembly, Programmable Materials and 4D Printing
3D printing has grown in sophistication since the late 1970s. TED Fellow Skylar Tibbits is shaping the next development, which he calls 4D printing: where the fourth dimension is time. This emerging technology will allow us to print objects that then reshape themselves or self-assemble over time. Think: a printed cube that folds before your eyes, or a printed pipe able to sense the need to expand or contract. 
In this keynote, Tibbits explains how we are now able to program nearly everything—from bits of DNA, proteins, cells, and proto-cells; to products, architecture, and infrastructure. Programmability and computing are becoming ubiquitous across scales and disciplines. Tibbits shows us how soon these small-scale technologies will translate into solutions for large-scale applications—and what it means for your industry.