Skylar Tibbits, who co-runs the lab, says he was originally inspired by MIT's DIY cellphone project. That idea involved using $100 to $200 worth of parts to build a fairly simple dumbphone on your own. Tibbits took that concept even further to figure out how to build a functioning phone without human or robotic help. At this point, his team has managed to get six components to shape into two separate phones.
Naturally, there's a lot to consider when designing the self-assembling experiment. The tumbler being used by the MIT team has to move fast enough to juggle the parts around, but not fast enough to actually break them. The components also need to connect at the right points and stay together securely. For now, MIT is relying on magnets to bring the right parts together.
The finished product, which looks like a prototype for a 90's-era cellphone, is undoubtedly rough. But the fact that it can actually come together and turn on (there's no word on calling capability yet) is impressive. Self-assembling devices won't do much to save manufacturing jobs, Tibbits says, but it's one way companies can automate and lower the cost of production.