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Viewed in time lapse, it looks easy enough, but getting materials to self-assemble isn’t simple. Every variable—the size, weight and geometry of the individual pieces, the force of turbulence, the amount of water, etc.—impacts how efficiently the chair builds itself. In this rough prototype, the chair is made up of six components. Each is embedded with magnets and has an unique connection point that allows it to latch onto another piece. Think of it like a puzzle with the magnets acting as the attracting force. “At close proximity, each piece should easily connect with its corresponding component but never with another one,” explains Baily Zuniga, a student in the lab who led the research.
The way the pieces eventually find each other is mostly a result of trial and error—pieces floating next to each other until they find their perfect match. It’s hard to tell from the video, but it took seven hours for the chair to fully assemble itself. Not lightning fast, but an impressive starting point. “Finding a way to make the pieces more interchangeable would increase the probability of the pieces finding their matches,” says Zuniga. “Thus resulting in a faster assembly.”