We're all familiar with ant colonies, where every tiny creature is running around doing just what it needs to. Well it looks like SRI International has taken inspiration from the giant mounds of insects, to create their own swarms of tiny worker robots that can put together mechanical assemblies and electronic circuits.
Diamagnetic Micro Manipulation (DM3) uses tiny magnets that move under a circuit board, to get the micro-robots to follow a set pattern based on a set of preprogrammed instructions. The system can be set up so just one or a couple of robots are working together, or you can have giant groups of them moving together in sync like some bizarre gymnastics routine. Despite their tiny size, the robots can move up to a foot in a single second, so they can haul around your micro manufacturing supplies pretty swiftly.
SRI says that DM3 can be used for prototyping parts, electronics assembly, biotech lab-on-a-chip experiments, and assembling small mechanical systems in hostile environments. Eventually they plan to scale up the technology, by developing a manufacturing head containing thousands of the little buggers that can build much larger assemblies.
As you might expect, the funding comes from the military, and is part of DARPA's Open Manufacturing program.
Check out the video where you can see swarms of the micro-robots moving in unison, and then as a couple of them work together to build some pretty amazing truss structures. They even manage to dispense the super glue used to hold the rods together without getting it all over their fingers and sticking everything together.
Perhaps with this technology, Apple could give some of those unhappy Chinese factory workers a break.