digital materials and assemblers

MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms has several research programs in the field of digital materials: mechanical, structural, electrical and their respective design tools.


digital materials are:

Familiar examples demonstrating these features are legos and amino acids. From a base set of discrete elements with discrete functionality great complexity can be built. Due to physical encoding and local metrology the overall precision of the bulk material can be greater than that of the assembly system(like a child asssembling legos). Simple one-bit motions can be combined to place individual functional bits.



Digital Materials are a way of designing and manufacturing. Rather than building large, monolithic, single-use components, we discretize the material into simple, repeating, functional bits. A discrete set of base elements are combined to form cellular lattices with bulk material properties. This lets us cheat: we can maximize the performance of our material by assembling high-performance sub-elements, and their reversibility maximizes the sustainability and post-life reusability of the product. With all of these discrete units, assembly becomes a chore, and automation becomes crucial. The structured nature of the lattice enables assembler robots to use the geometry of the lattice for locomotion and error-correction. Further, the structured nature of the discretized lattice lends itself to novel design and simulation tools that exploit functional representations of the geometry to open the design space to previously unthinkable regimes of simulation, topological design and manufacture path-planning.

Both mechanical and electrical digital materials share similar research concerns despite differing functional goals. Ultimately there is to be convergence such that electrical and mechanical digital materials interweave their functionality. However, for the moment within each field, there remain tough questions to be solved regarding robustness of manufacture and performance, namely: joinery, material handling, and locomotion. The automation of this system depends on robotic assemblers that leverage this periodic lattice structure to maximize efficacy.

design tools

electrical digital materials

mechanical/structural digital materials

digital material hierarchical space structures

digital material automation


It has been shown that digital material construction has produced the lightest, strongest materials in existence, as well as ones with tunable and exotic responses to external and internal loads. The key to actualization of this technology is balancing assemblability with structural performance. Our research looks at how these two primary design criteria inform the design of automated assembly systems. By building assembling robots that crawl along the structure, arbitrarily sized structures can be rapidly generated.



center for bits and atoms