No assembly needed, furniture shapes itself

The prototype of a self-shaped chaise lounge. 

Photo By University of Stuttgart / ICD, Robert Faulkner

Elegantly curved seating furniture that is delivered in a flat-pack and assumes its shape overnight all by itself? This may sound like a dream to those who have struggled to assemble a piece and puzzled over the printed assembly instructions from a furniture store.

HygroShape developed at the Institute for Computational Design and Construction (ICD) at the University of Stuttgart, relies on the shaping forces of nature and combines these with the possibilities of digitalization.

With HygroShape, ICD researchers Dr. Dylan Wood and Laura Kiesewetter are exploiting an intrinsic property of wood that is known to every carpenter or joiner: The cell walls expand when wet and contract when drying, while the stiffness exactly correlates with the change in moisture content. If wood dries in an uncontrolled manner, this hygroscopic shrinkage causes undesirable deformation, and the material warps.

If you understand how the forces work, however, you can utilize them for achieving a specific change in shape that is driven by the material only – and which is completed silently, without human intervention, tools, or assembly instructions.

The Stuttgart researchers copied the biological principle for the passive self-shaping process from, among other things, the cones of conifers. The cone scales consist of anisotropic fiber composites that form a bilayer. As long as the cone is alive, a high-water content is maintained in this bilayer. After the cone has fallen off the tree, the scales dry out, slowly flex open, and release the seeds.

Within the HygroShape concept, the researchers digitalize the physical-mechanical properties of such composite materials using finely tuned computer-aided design methods and compute a specific material syntax to prepare the material for the planned deformation sequence. Based on this specific syntax, flat, multi-layered wooden parts are produced that have a sophisticated internal composition and a defined moisture content.

Using a computer-aided design tool, the planks are then arranged in tailored configurations that control and coordinate the subsequent shaping process. Using this physical coding, each piece, when flat, is programmed in such a way that a defined curved geometry will be created when the moisture content is reduced. Finally, the parts are sealed and transported to the end-user, where they will be exposed to an environment that is significantly drier than the production environment which thus activates the shaping sequence.

The digital design allows the use of a range of natural materials with higher variability while opening the door to a new design language. In fact, for several years now, furniture has often been transported in compact, flat packages for cost reasons and only assembled on-site, which limits the scope of furniture design to straight and angular shapes. By contrast, the unique material behavior of a HygroShape part allows elegant curves and slim surfaces, and standard angle and metal fittings are not required.

“The self-shaping process by its nature leads to an honest and clean design,” say Prof. Achim Menges and Dylan Wood. “The result is a stable and yet flexible structure that dynamically interacts with the body.” 


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Larry Adams | Editor

Larry Adams is a Chicago-based writer and editor who writes about how things get done. A former wire service and community newspaper reporter, Larry is an award-winning writer with more than three decades of experience. In addition to writing about woodworking, he has covered science, metrology, metalworking, industrial design, quality control, imaging, Swiss and micromanufacturing . He was previously a Tabbie Award winner for his coverage of nano-based coatings technology for the automotive industry. Larry volunteers for the historic preservation group, the Kalo Foundation/Ianelli Studios, and the science-based group, Chicago Council on Science and Technology (C2ST).