Watch MIT’s Crazy Self-Assembling Phone Machine in Action

Self-Assembly Lab

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is working on the future of autonomous phone manufacturing, and the future looks like a washing machine running its spin cycle.

MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab has created a tool that tumbles a primitive phone into self-construction without human or artificial intelligence oversight. Blocks of the phone are placed into the mixer, and then the pieces are jostled around until they snap together. The design is too basic to work on a practical manufacturing level at the moment, but it can still assemble a phone in under a minute, and hints at the type of autonomous technology that will make a universal basic income a necessity.

“If you look at how things are manufactured at every other scale other than the human scale — look at DNA and cells and proteins, then look at the planetary scale — everything is built through self assembly,” Skylar Tibbits, a research scientist at the Self-Assembly Lab, told Fast Company. “But at the human scale, it’s the opposite. Everything is built top down. We take components and we force them together.”

Tumble dry high.

Self-Assembly Lab

Giant phone-mixing factories filled with tumblers would certainly solve some of Apple’s sweatshop problems. The technology will have to advance through the block phone stage, though.

It's a snap!

Self-Assembly Lab

“Consumer electronics assembly requires a tremendous amount of manual labor or highly customized robotics,” MIT’s video states. “This leads to increased cost, assembly time and energy consumption, driving companies to search for cheaper and cheaper off-shore labor.”

Two completed, tumble-dried phones.

Self-Assembly Lab

The tumbler swishes the phone parts around so they are forced to interact with each other. Each part has a specific connection that can only be filled by the corresponding piece. Then those pieces stick together (in this case with magnets).

The idea, as project co-designer Marcelo Coelho told CNN Money, is to help streamline the manufacturing process so companies large and small can focus more on their product design than on managing logistical matters:

This technology has the potential to completely change the product design landscape. On one extreme, it will allow large companies to rapidly generate many versions of a product and iterate based on customer feedback. On the other, it will allow small design studios to easily scale their production from a few units to thousands with little overhead, closing the loop on the democratization of design started by crowd-funding.

Another potential benefit of this system is the ability to create a variety of devices from a limited number of parts, as with the modular Project Ara smartphone that Google plans to release at some point in 2017.

Still, it’s hard to see the potential of tumbling technology at the moment. Eventually, a more advanced version could put together a device smarter than a brick phone — perhaps a Motorola Razr?

Tibbits told Fast Company: “We’re just scratching the surface.” Presumably he means the surface of the technology’s potential, not the surface of the phone.