(Mad) scientists at MIT have come up with a robot that can assemble itself from 3D-printed components when exposed to heat. The MIT team will demonstrate the skills of their impressive new bot at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Hong Kong next week. 

The robot is made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC.) The researchers printed "two-dimensional sheets of the material and placed them between two rigid polyester films full of different sized slits." Then the sheets get put in the oven. As they start to heat up, the material contracts and the slits close. That pushes the polyester film edges together. "These edge patterns ultimately direct the movement of the PVC and help to form the final 3D shape of the product." If the slits and edges move as intended (which is actually quite a complex process) the final result is a robot. 

Daniela Rus, an engineering and computer science professor at MIT, explained the complexity: “You’re doing this really complicated global control that moves every edge in the system at the same time. You want to design those edges in such a way that the result of composing all these motions, which actually interfere with each other, leads to the correct geometric structure.”

The end goal of the project is to create a system in which the printed robots can be programmed to do specific tasks, “We have this big dream of the hardware compiler, where you can specify, ‘I want a robot that will play with my cat,’ or, ‘I want a robot that will clean the floor,’ and from this high-level specification, you actually generate a working device,” Rus said.

So, one day, you might be able to print a robot in the comfort of your own home that can then judge races that your other robots are competing in.